Leicester: a city that understands migration to be part of its past and present

Contribution and control were the clear priorities of the citizens’ panel in Leicester, the 24th location for the National Conversation on Immigration, on what the government could do to increase public confidence in immigration after Britain leaves the European Union.

The emphasis on contribution reflected both the recognition that Leicester has benefitted from immigration in several ways – along with concerns about how well increases in immigration had been managed.

The group was divided between some who saw a significant risk of labour shortages after Brexit, if some Europeans chose to leave Britain while tighter rules meant they couldn’t be replaced, and others who thought reducing the future level of migration from Europe would lead to better opportunities for school-leavers to find decent jobs. This group felt that there would be more pressure on employers to make sure school leavers got the training and skills they would need.

Those on both sides of this argument shared a preference for having an immigration system which treated different types of immigration differently. Most participants had not heard of the government’s headline immigration pledge, as has been the case across the National Conversation citizens’ panels. Only one of the participants knew what the net migration target was – and could cite the ‘tens of thousands’ level that the government had pledged but failed to deliver – while a couple of other participants had a shakier sense of the target.

Our Leicester panel were unanimous in preferring to see separate targets for different types of immigration after Brexit. The group held a sense that the Australian points-system struck a better balance in seeing the skills that people could contribute. Most participants wanted to reduce low-skilled migration from the EU but carry on with current levels in other areas, including skilled EU migration, skilled migration from outside the EU and student immigration.

Students coming to Britain were seen as making a positive contribution to both Leicester itself and to the county of Leicestershire too. ‘Without the foreign students, I don’t know if the universities would be going in Leicester’, said one participant, noting how the city’s universities were quite actively involved in activities that involved the broader public in the city too. ‘Loughborough has become quite a dynamic place, with all of its new eateries, and without the university, it would really be a bit of a dead town’, said another. This was combined with a desire to see effective systems to prevent applicants using student visas as a pre-text to work rather than study, or to over-stay the visa and fall off the radar.

The importance of better systems to control and manage immigration was a recurring theme of the panel. Participants felt that Britain, as a ‘lucky country’, had a duty to help those fleeing war zones – combining that with questions about whether there was an effective enough system to identify those who genuinely needed help. Participants who wanted to help families fleeing war zones wondered why there didn’t seem to be more women and children among those arriving.  Female participants said that large groups of young men hanging around together in Leicester could feel intimidating. The importance of a system which could help those fleeing from groups like ISIS while rejecting those with the wrong motives was seen by participants as more important after the spate of recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Britain and Europe in recent months.

The Leicester panel, like many other panels we have spoken to, was divided when participants were asked whether they would pay any additional taxation to invest in a better immigration system. For some, that was certainly a price worth paying, particularly if it would contribute to public safety. Others – or felt that the resources could come from elsewhere, such as the money which had gone to Northern Ireland as part of the deal with the DUP to keep the Conservative government in power. The group had a strong preference for controlled, managed and legal immigration yet also took a pragmatic view as to where resources should be prioritised.

Integration was an important theme for the group. The Leicester panel reflected the multi-ethnic demographics of the city. The group agreed that migration could make a contribution as long as it was controlled and managed well. On the citizens’ panel, it tended to be the British Asian participants tended to take a tougher approach on immigration, welfare and integration while white British participants were more likely to talk about the pragmatic need for migration in sectors of the economy. The Leicester group placed more emphasis on a secure, controlled system and integration – and focused rather less on pressures on public services – than National Conversations panels elsewhere.

Our meeting with local stakeholders perceived a growing confidence in Leicester as a city in which diversity had become a positive everyday norm. Those involved in faith communities felt that sustained local political leadership over a long period had made a significant, positive difference. The citizens’ panel did share that perspective, up to a point, but with an important caveat.

It was common ground that Leicester had a sense of local pride that did connect those from different ethnicities and faith – ‘when Leicester City won the football, it was really fantastic that people who had come from all over the world were celebrating together, because Leicester had won something’ – and that other cities, around Britain and abroad had tended to look to Leicester as a city that had got more things right than wrong. ‘Nowhere’s perfect – but when you have seen trouble and riots in different places, that hasn’t happened in Leicester. There is some racism here, like there is everywhere, but Leicester is a place where most people rub along well’

However, our Leicester the citizens’ panel felt there was a risk that the city was becoming more segregated over time rather than more integrated.

‘My family has been here since the 1950s. We often say we were the third Asian family to come to Leicester. What happened was that people tend at first to go together to where they feel safe – so we did get a Sikh area, a Muslim area, a Punjabi area. So it takes time to people to integrate – but I also feel that the first generation and their children did then get more confident, to mix in the schools, and to want to spread out to other areas of the city too. My worry today is that people might start to feel more that it is enough to stick to your own group, and that we could start to have less mixing instead of more’.

Leicester is certainly a city that understands migration to be part of its past and present – but we heard a sense that there is more work to do on ensuring there is contact between people from different backgrounds in one of this country’s most diverse cities to ensure that confidence is maintained in the future.

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