Beyond the ‘hostile environment’? Rethinking UK immigration control

Over the past three decades, the UK government has gradually shifted from a reliance on external borders to internal control. This has taken the form of ‘outsourcing’ control to a range of service providers and social systems, who effectively become gatekeepers, monitoring migrants and/or limiting their access to key services. This started in the 1980s and 1990s with carrier sanctions and employer sanctions, followed by the introduction of ‘sponsor status’ for employers and higher education institutions in the 2000s. It has culminated in the so-called ‘hostile environment’ introduced by the Home Office in the 2010s, which now implicates health, education, banking and private housing suppliers in controlling irregular migration.

In one sense, the shift from external to internal control aligns the UK with its continental neighbours, who have long relied on checks on immigrants within their territory. However, internal checks in the UK are not based on the type of ‘police and patrol’ methods that characterise most continental European countries. There is no requirement for residents to register with local authorities, to notify authorities of their whereabouts, or to carry ID with them. Police have a limited role in control, and do not carry out the sorts of spot checks seen in many other European countries. Instead, checks are outsourced to the range of social services that immigrants access: transport carriers, who enable entry into the UK; employers, who act as the gatekeepers to labour market participation; but also, more controversially, education and health providers, banks and landlords.

In many ways, this is an astute move for a government keen to limit irregular work and stay. Immigrants who are staying for a prolonged period of time, and especially those with family, rely on such services to sustain a viable life in the UK. It is difficult, arguably impossible, to lead a decent life without being admitted into these social systems.

However, the UK approach of relying on social systems and service providers carries risks. It implies that control only kicks in once migrants access relevant services: once they require health care, or education, or more stable accommodation, or a longer-term job. This may not apply when they first arrive, but may well become a requirement they are settled, or once they have children. This is in contrast to the continental model, which front-loads immigration control by requiring immediate registration and spot checks.

In this sense, outsourcing control to service providers disrupts the long-standing UK approach of combining restrictive entry with a tolerant approach to immigrants once they are here. On the new approach, immigrants may enter more readily, but may be caught out by internal checks several years or even decades into their stay.

There is a further risk that imposing barriers to accessing services will encourage people to slip beneath the radar. If people have strong reasons to stay in the UK, then they may simply circumvent regular structures and services (whether housing, health, education, employment), and rely on informal structures or go without any support at all. But falling back on informal, irregular systems will expose immigrants to more abuse and exploitation, making them more vulnerable to ruthless landlords, or exploitative employers. It will also deprive them of core rights to education and health. And in the long-term, the upshot will be that they are more vulnerable and less integrated into UK society.

Both factors mean that we may well see more Windrush-type cases, where immigrants with unclear status or without the relevant documentation either avoid, or are caught out by, immigration control only at the point that they begin to access much-needed services. This may well become a serious problem in the case of EEA nationals after Brexit, many of whom may not be able to supply the required documentation to achieve settled status, or may not be willing or able to put in an application (see also Mike’s blog on lessons from the Windrush scandal).

So what is the answer? How might the UK government go about managing irregular stay without jeopardising the welfare and integration prospects of long-term residents?

The UK government has toyed with the idea of rolling out universal ID cards since the 1990s, but has faced strong opposition on logistical and civil rights grounds. Neither is it clear that such a system would solve the problem. In the absence of a more systematic approach to registration and checks – such as the one operating in Germany – simply being required to show an ID card at the point of accessing services would not address the challenges above. It would also imply a huge investment in terms of infrastructure, and would jar with the a long-standing political culture of minimal (at least formal) state control of residents.

If control measures are not the answer, there are other approaches that could help address the problem. First, the UK could do more to reduce the incentives of both employers and immigrants to resort to irregular employment. In particular, the UK needs to think seriously about how to meet demand for lower-skilled labour after Brexit, when the supply of EEA nationals to lower-skilled jobs is likely to be restricted. If immigrants are permitted to meet demand for such labour through regular routes, with access to appropriate residence rights, then there will be less incentive for unauthorised work or stay.

Second, and linked to this, UK public authorities need to be more robust about regulating labour in the sectors most vulnerable to informal work – such as domestic work, hospitality, construction, and areas of manufacturing and agriculture. Germany and Sweden are examples of countries with more robust checks and controls, which reduce the incentives of both employers and workers to use informal channels. And since work is the area most likely to be immediately accessed by immigrants, it lessens the risk of gatekeepers identifying irregular migrants once they have been residing for a prolonged period of time. It also avoids deterring immigrants from services that they should be actively encouraged to access while they are in the UK, such as health and education.

Third, the UK should consider options for regularising longer-term residents. If outsourcing immigration control implies delaying immigrant control until migrants are already settled, then the government needs to be more accommodating in allowing amnesties for longer-term residents. Regularisation of status need not be high profile, if there is concern about creating a ‘pull factor’ for would-be beneficiaries. Instead, the Home Office could develop more systematic guidance for granting amnesties on a case-by-case basis, dependent on length of stay, family status, degree of integration, and so on.

No country has a perfect system for controlling irregular immigration. Each government has to work within the constraints of its existing infrastructure, resources, humanitarian obligations and political culture. The UK has traditionally relied on external controls, but has increasingly acknowledged it needs to focus management on internal measures. But it has become patently clear that the ‘hostile environment’ is not the solution. Nor is a continental style ‘police and control’ system. Instead, the UK government should focus on addressing the problem at its source, through reducing incentives for irregular employment; channel more resources to support the key gatekeeping function of employers, rather than other social services which immigrants should be encouraged to access; and creating a more accommodating approach to regularisation for those migrants who are identified only once they are already settled.

This blog was first posted on the ESRC ‘Seeing Illegal Immigrants’ website.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beyond temporary labour migration schemes: Options for regulating lower-skilled migration after Brexit

Last week we published a report on UK immigration policy after Brexit, focusing on regulating immigration into lower-skilled jobs. The report, entitled Options Ahead: Approaches to Lower Skilled Migration After Brexit, was written by a team of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, including Sarah Kyambi, Rebecca Kay and me. Sarah has also published a blog on the findings, and an article on the report appeared in the Herald. Pasted below is the executive summary.


Reviewing the Policy Options

The report analyses a range of schemes designed to meet labour market, demographic and social goals.Sectoral schemes focus on recruiting workers to particular sectors or occupations; they aim to address specific sectoral or occupational shortages, at a range of skills levels. Employer-led schemes select workers based on employer demand; they assume that employers are best placed to identify shortages, and oftenbuild in ‘tests’ for employers to demonstrate they cannot fill vacancies from the domestic labour force.Human capital schemes select workers based on their individual characteristics, such as work experience, family status, language skills or ties with the country/region, and allow them more generous rights and flexibility in choosing employment. These schemes are often targeted at immigrants with higher skills, but may also be aimed at attracting those with lower skills, in order to address aggregate shortages and/or to meet demographic goals.

These three types of programme can be further subdivided according to the package of rights they grant. Possible rights include: opportunities for switching job or employer (employer mobility); opportunities for switching location within the host country (regional mobility); access to welfare; family rights, including family reunification; length of stay; and pathways to permanent settlement or citizenship. Typically, thesedimensions are grouped together across schemes: thus schemes that restrict migrants’ access to welfare and rights tend to operate on the basis of short-term stays; where migrants stay longer, a more generous package of rights is needed. The study explores 6 case studies from other industrialised countries, including examples of each type of programme and with a variety of associated packages of rights.

Sectoral schemes: The sectoral schemes studied include two restrictive regimes which recruit workers mainly into agriculture – the New Zealand RSE programme and the German Temporary Seasonal Worker programme. These both provide short-term, often circular, migration to fill seasonal labour demand, with an emphasis on enforcing return (at 9 months in New Zealand and 3 months in Germany). There are no opportunities to extend stay or switch to another status, and no family rights or access to welfare.

Both schemes are regulated through bilateral agreements, which ensure the return of migrant workers. The programmes also meet various foreign policy and development goals.

By contrast, the Canadian caregiver programme enables households requiring live-in care to hire a foreign worker, subject to a labour market test. Caregivers can apply for permanent residence after 2 years, and can be accompanied by their family under certain conditions. The generosity of the scheme reflects the challenges in attracting suitable candidates for this kind of work.

All of these programmes tie migrant workers to an employer, and this can make workers more vulnerable to exploitation. The more generous Canadian scheme has attracted workers with higher skills levels who trade off working at the level of their qualifications with the opportunity to access more generous rights and settlement in Canada after the initial 2 years.

Employer-led schemes: The Swedish 2008 Immigration Law and the Spanish Catalogue of Hard-to-Fill vacancies both allow employers to recruit across the skills spectrum, including to lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs. Both also grant increasing access to social and family rights and pathways to settlement over time. Under the Swedish scheme permits are granted for 2 years for migrants with job offers; permits may be extended for a further 2 years, after which migrants can apply for permanent status. Access to welfare rights and family reunion is granted after the first year. The Spanish scheme operates a similarly staged route (with some variations). Both systems have been flexible in adapting to changing employer demand.

In both countries, the more generous rights are partly driven by the need to attract migrants to settle, in order to offset ageing populations. In Sweden, there is also concern about attracting migrants, given language barriers. In Spain, the key factor driving the more generous approach is the desire to channel irregular flows through legal routes. The relative generosity of these programmes also shows that social norms and values are reflected within immigration systems. In both Spain and Sweden ideals of equality and non-discrimination work against a stratification of rights that excludes immigrants in the longer term.

Human capital schemes: The Manitoba Provincial Nominee Programme is a points-based system, which selects migrants at a range of skills levels, with the goal of increasing settlement migration to Manitoba. This reflects a need to meet labour market gaps, but also to counter population decline and ageing. Migrants are selected based on their personal characteristics and ties to the province, and more recently there has been a requirement that the nominee have a job offer. This shift reflects concern that the programme was not effectively matching immigrants to the right jobs – a type of ‘deskilling’ that can be a problem acrossprogrammes with generous rights, as they are likely to attract migrants who are overqualified for the jobs being offered. However, the programme has been successful in attracting and retaining more settlement migration to the province.

Immigrant Decision-making

The report examines how different types of schemes might affect the mobility decisions of immigrants, an oft neglected aspect of immigration policy making, drawing on data on EEA migrants resident in Scotland. The project draws on extensive interview data gathered before the Brexit vote, supplemented with further focus groups and interviews. The data suggests that a change to a more restrictive system with a more complicated entry regime would reduce the attractiveness of the UK as a destination, placing it in direct competition with other English-speaking destination countries such as the USA and Canada, as well as with countries maintaining free movement. This double competition may particularly affect decision-making among younger migrants with good English-language skills and for those wishing to settle longer term as a family.

The research focused on the six different dimensions of programmes outlined above (employer mobility, regional mobility, welfare, family rights, length of stay, and pathways to settlement). It found that:

  • The ability to change employer was a popular feature of free movement, and many EEA migrants made use of this mobility to secure better pay and conditions, especially over the longer term. Nonetheless, others had found it impossible to progress remaining in insecure, low paid work below their skills level. Therefore, some would be prepared to be tied to a job, at least initially, if this implied better safeguards.
  • Regional mobility was a valued feature of free movement, and had led some people to relocate to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK and/or to more rural or remote areas once in Scotland. On the other hand, regional mobility can also draw people away from areas with less attractive employment opportunities, smaller existing migrant communities or fewer leisure and cultural facilities. The potential impact of restricted mobility differed by age and lifestage, with younger migrants most likely to be deterred by such restrictions.
  • Participants were keen to stress that access to welfare and social security was not a driver for migration decisions. However, in many cases social security had played a crucial role in longer-term settlement, making low paid work viable and sustainable, especially for families.
  • Views on family rights differed by age and lifestage, with younger, unattached migrants not finding such rights a priority. However, for those with families rights to family reunion were extremely important and determinative in decisions to settle longer term. The larger data set also contained a number of non-EEA nationals who reported significant distress and complications generated by their lack of family rights.
  • Decision-making regarding length of stay is complex and open-ended. The majority of EEA nationals did not originally arrive with a long-term stay in mind. Thus restrictions on length of stay would not deter most people. However, the flexible nature of free movement has facilitated the development of longer-term settlement over time. In areas where longer stays are desired due to demographic, social or labour market needs, the loss of such flexibility, accompanied by straightforward pathways to settlement may be more problematic, and is likely in particular to deter families with children.


    Policy makers need to balance a range of labour market, demographic and social goals in developing policies to regulate low-skilled migration. But crucially, they also need to consider how different programmes are likely to affect decisions on mobility and settlement. A shift to a more restrictive system is likely to have substantial effects on the supply of EEA nationals into lower-skilled jobs and reduces the likelihood of migrants settling for the longer term.

    Our data show how decisions made during a period of free movement have been shaped by the flexibility that this framework affords. Whilst it is difficult to predict precisely how decisions will change under a new migration regime, it seems highly likely that certain groups of migrants, in particular families with young children, and those seeking longer-term settlement and stability, will be deterred by a more restrictive system.

    Whatever programme is adopted, the UK and Scotland will have to compete with other countries as potential migrant destinations. For EEA nationals, other countries within the EEA will become attractive alternatives. Other English-speaking countries (USA, Canada or Australia) with more complex entry requirements may also begin to emerge as more attractive destinations, especially for younger migrants with good English-language skills.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Targets in the Home Office: A Long and Troubled History

The recent scandal over removals targets has focused attention on the so-called ‘target culture’ that is rife in the Home Office. In fact, the organization has been driven by targets since the early years of the Blair administration. A series of ambitious ‘stretch’ targets were rolled out as part of the system of Public Service Agreements as early as 2000.

Initially, the targets were focused on making the asylum system more efficient. A target on the processing of asylum applications aimed to speed up the turnaround of decision-making on cases. While a further target on removals (yes, they go back that far), aimed to increase the number of rejected asylum seekers who were removed from the country. In this initial phase, the targets were largely about managing internal performance within the Home Office – what I’ve called the ‘disciplining’ function of targets. And they were not popular within the Home Office – officials talked of targets as a ‘necessary evil’ for securing resources from the Treasury.

However, as asylum numbers continued to increase in the early 2000s, Blair came under severe media and political pressure to show he was managing the problem. In February 2003 he announced a target of halving the number of people seeking asylum in the UK – a high profile target, aimed at signalling the government’s commitment to tackle the issue. It was also a controversial target, as it implied deterring or preventing asylum-seekers from coming to the UK (rather than streamlining asylum procedures once they were here). And it was a hugely ambitious target, greeted with scepticism and derision by the press – the left objecting on ethical grounds, the right on grounds of its feasibility.

Blunkett’s Home Office did go on to meet the target – though how far this was a result of changing conditions in countries of origin is still debated. However, its success received a lukewarm reception in the media, teaching the government that targets do not always serve well as tools of political communication.

Targets were again deployed in 2006, to address criticism of the Home Office in the wake of the ‘foreign national offenders’ scandal. This was the revelation that a hundred or so non-UK nationals had been released from prison after serving their sentence, without being considered by the Home Office for deportation. Removals were once again in the spotlight, with officials and ministers grilled by select committees over their failure to remove around 400-450,000 rejected asylum applicants. John Reid, newly instated as Home Secretary, introduced new targets to clear the asylum ‘backlog’, including an ambitious removals target.

In the second half of the 2000s, asylum figures were declining and the issue began to recede from media and political attention. Yet by then, the target culture had taken a firm grip on the Home Office and the UK Border Agency. As one former special advisor told me, it had ‘morphed into a more technocratic approach’, with a very complicated architecture’.

As these targets became increasingly complex and technical, they began to lose their purpose as tools of political communication – or ‘signaling’ function – becoming more about internal organization. Indeed, they became a thoroughly normal tool of Home Office management. One senior official told me they had tried to do without targets for asylum processing, but quickly reintroduced them as they had lost they ‘didn’t know what success looked like’.

By the end of the decade, targets were falling into disrepute. They were criticised as clunky, distorting and simplifying; they encouraged gaming, and their centralising tendency stifled initiative. The Conservatives and their Lib Dem coalition partners vowed to eschew targets – especially as a signalling device.

Of course, there was one prominent exception: the net migration target, announced by David Cameron in early 2010. This target, as is well known, has been a ruthless driver of immigration policy, affecting all aspects of immigration policy that might have a bearing on the numbers admitted, as well as those leaving the UK. Thus it has affected policies on family migration, foreign students and labour migration, as well as, of course, influencing the decision to leave the EU.

It was natural that the net migration goal would be codified as a set of more specific targets – the Home Office’s go-to tool for performance management. And also to be expected that the targets would extend to implementation of the ‘hostile environment’ – Theresa May’s policy of enforcing immigration controls through outsourcing checks to a range of service providers, including employers, landlords, banks, education and health providers.

For me, the surprise is more in the way the media and parliamentary system has reacted to target-gate. We have had almost two decades of opposition parties, select communities and the media grilling governments on their failure to meet removals targets. This criticism has now been turned on its head: the fault lies in setting such clunky and unethical targets in the first place – not in the failure to meet them.

This is a welcome development, casting the spotlight as it does on the distorting effects of Home Office targets. It implies that politicians may in the future be more cautious about their use of targets. Unfortunately, though, I suspect that targets will continue to drive internal performance systems within the Home Office. Once you’re hooked on this tool of performance measurement, it proves very difficult to go without it.

You can read more about the target culture in UK government in my new book, Manufacturing Political Trust: Targets and Performance Measurement in Public Policy.

Read more about the ESRC project underpinning the research here, and a this links you to a blog summarising the project findings.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Immigration control in the UK and the ‘Windrush children’

Mike Slaven and I have published a new article tracing how and why the Home Office introduced a series of largely symbolic measures to control Commonwealth immigration in the 1960s. This is the first article from our ESRC project on Seeing Illegal Immigrants: State Monitoring and Political Rationality‘. The article has been published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Why symbolise control? Irregular migration to the UK and symbolic policy-making in the 1960s 

by Mike Slaven and Christina Boswell


It has frequently been observed that irregular migration is a common object of symbolic policy-making: the use of cosmetic adjustments to signal action, rather than substantive measures that achieve stated goals. Yet there is little research analysing the considerations driving policy actors to adopt such approaches. Drawing on existing literature, we distinguish three theoretical accounts of symbolic policy-making: manipulation, compensation, and adaptation. We explore these accounts through examining the emergence of symbolic policies in UK immigration control in the 1960s. Through detailed archival research, we reconstruct the deliberations leading to a series of Home Office decisions to crack down on irregular entry – decisions which officials felt were not operationally sensible, but which were based on popular political narratives of the problem. We conclude that the UK’s adoption of symbolic policy was a clear case of adaptation: a series of concessions to simplistic notions of control that did not chime with official views of what would work, and which were reluctantly embraced for reasons of political expediency. In conclusion, we suggest the need for more fine-grained analysis of the deliberations underpinning decision-making in bureaucracies, in order to produce more nuanced accounts of political rationalities in the area of immigration policy.

You can read a blog exploring the implications of the article’s findings for the current debate on the ‘Windrush children’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rethinking Policy Impact: Four Models of Research-Policy Relations

Christina Boswell and Katherine Smith

Political scientists are increasingly exhorted to ensure their research has policy ‘impact’, most notably via Research Excellence Framework (REF) impact case studies, and ‘pathways to impact’ statements in UK Research Council funding applications. Yet the assumptions underpinning these frameworks often fail to reflect available evidence and theories. Notions of ‘impact’, ‘engagement’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ are typically premised on simplistic, linear models of the policy process, according to which policy-makers are keen to ‘utilise’ expertise to produce more ‘effective’ policies. Such accounts overlook the rich body of literature in political science, policy studies, and sociology of knowledge, which offer more complex and nuanced accounts.

In a paper just published in the PalgraveComms series on the Future of Research Assessment, we set out four different approaches to theorising the relationship between knowledge and policy (summarised in diagram below): (1) knowledge shapes policy; (2) politics shapes knowledge; (3) co-production; and (4) autonomous spheres. We consider what each of these four approaches suggests about approaches to incentivising and measuring research impact.

The first approach focuses on how research can be used ‘instrumentally’, to adjust policy. On this account, policy-makers draw on research and ‘evidence’ to produce more effective policies. As many have pointed out, this model – which underpins REF and HEFCE approaches to impact – relies on a rather simplistic model of the policy process, according to which policy-makers seek out the best evidence to adjust policy in a way that will improve policy outputs. But more sophisticated accounts of policy-making have long questioned this linear, rationalist account.

A more nuanced version of the instrumentalist account can be found in Carole Weiss’s notion of the conceptual, or ‘enlightenment’ function of knowledge. Weiss’s argument is that research can influence policy, but more typically in the form of ideational adjustments, brought about through incremental processes, typically influenced by a diffuse body of research rather than individual findings.

What implications would this account have for efforts to incentivise, measure and reward research impact? Weiss’s notion of research as ‘enlightenment’ challenges the notion that researchers or institutions should be rewarded for claims about the impact of individual studies. Instead, impact frameworks should be oriented towards encouraging collaboration and shared research agendas. And they should assume that research generally has a longer-term, incremental impact, often through shaping the framing of policy problems.

The second set of theories focuses on how politics and policy shape knowledge production and use. These accounts imply the need to be far more sceptical of the impact agenda: indeed, it is naïve to assume that researchers can speak truth to power. The upshot is that researchers should not be rewarded for their supposed impact, since policy actors employ research for political reasons, rather than to improve the quality or effectiveness of policies.

Thus from this perspective, the fundamental idea of promoting research ‘impact’ ought to be resisted, since the take-up of research is contingent on political agendas, rather than the societal utility of the research. This perspective also draws attention to the risk that moves to incentivise impact may lead to the politicisation of research, as researchers may reorient their research in a way that fits existing political agendas.

The third set of theories builds on the notion of co-production. Similar to the second approach, such accounts see knowledge as profoundly shaped by politics. But the notion of co-production focuses not just on the social and political constitution of science. It is also attentive to the other direction of influence: the ways in which governance is itself constituted by scientific knowledge. So rather than limiting its attention to how politics shapes knowledge, the notion of co-production posits that scientific and expert knowledge contribute to the construction of political reality.

Co-production accounts imply the need for a far more sophisticated, ethnographic methodology for examining how research and governance are mutually constitutive. They also argue that social science should not necessarily be understood as the ‘solution’ to social problems. Through its various scientific and technical innovations, science does not simply solve governance problems, but it also creates new ones – implying that the effects of research on policy are not always be benign or helpful. These accounts provide a radically different way of thinking about research impact, and suggest that approaches to incentivising and rewarding impact ought to do more to consider the desirability of such impact, ideally on a case by case basis.

The fourth approach, by contrast, posits that science and politics are autonomous systems, each guided by a distinct logic. Science is preoccupied with questions of truth and verifiability, while politics is preoccupied with power, and the production of collectively binding decisions. Each system relies on the other in importance ways; for example, science depends on resources from the political system. But there is no overarching causality between the two systems: science cannot ‘cause’ changes in politics. Instead, politics needs to observe and give meaning to science from its own, political, perspective.

Viewed from this perspective, the impact agenda should be treated cautiously by researchers. As with the second group of theories, systems theorists would argue that politics only selectively deploys scientific findings, insofar as they are meaningful to the political system. Perhaps more seriously, the impact agenda has risks diverting science from its core task of developing truth claims.

Both the second and fourth accounts suggest that the very idea of trying to incentivize the use of research in policy is flawed. On these accounts, we should be cautious about adopting systems that reward researchers for influencing policy. Such impacts are spurious, in that their apparent influence is down to pre-given interests or independent political dynamics; or they are the result of researchers aligning research questions and approaches to pre-fit political agendas. By rewarding researchers for achieving impact we are adopting an arbitrary incentive system that is at best decoupled from research quality, and at worst, threatens the integrity and independence of social science.

For those more sympathetic to the idea of ‘research impact’, the first and third approaches might offer more hope. Nonetheless, both approaches caution against rewarding individual researchers for ‘achieving’ research impact based on narrow indicators (e.g., citations in policy documents).

The enlightenment model suggests that research impact involves subtle, incremental and diffuse ideational adjustments over a long period of time, which are generated by a wide range of research insights rather than specific individual findings. Thus impact frameworks should reward collaborative endeavours that build incrementally on a wider body of work, and that may bring about subtle conceptual shifts, rather than clearly identifiable policy changes. Here, then, the focus might be on rewarding collaboration and knowledge exchange activities, rather than rewarding evidence of ‘demonstrable impacts’.

Co-production approaches, by contrast, would imply the need for much more in-depth, qualitative research on the complex relationships between knowledge and governance. But such approaches have also pointed to the performative effects of research: the ways in which (social) science can re-shape the social world it seeks to describe. This implies that models to promote engagement with knowledge users need to be attentive not just to the complex pathways to research impact, but also to the very real ethical implications of research influence. Not only can the impact agenda affect the practices of social science, as is widely recognised in social science literature; social science can also instigate new policy problems. Proponents of policy impact should have a care what they wish for.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Free Movement of Workers: Scotland’s Needs are Different but Flexibility Likely to Go

As the UK starts considering what its immigration policy will look like after Brexit, it is becoming clearer quite how well the EEA free movement provisions have worked for industry, public services, and for many local communities. This means it is going to be extremely hard to replace it in a way that suits all those who feel they have a stake in future UK immigration.

Benefits to employers

Let’s start with economic and labour market goals. Not only did free movement provide a ready source of labour across skills levels, occupations and regions. It also offered firms a flexible channel for recruitment, which bypassed the various bureaucratic hurdles of the UK immigration system. Unlike provisions for recruiting non-EEA nationals under ‘Tier 2’, employers did not have to undertake a resident labour market test, apply for sponsor status or impose skills or salary thresholds. So employers in all sorts of firms and public sector organisations could recruit suitably qualified staff without high costs and red tape. And they could do this for lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs, something not possible under the Tier 2 route, which is restricted to high qualified workers, and those earning at least £30,000 (or £20,800 for new entrants) – barring some exceptions.

Benefits to employees

Of course, this highly flexible arrangement has not been without its problems. Many EEA nationals have ended up taking jobs below their skills level, at lower wages and with less secure contracts than equivalently qualified UK workers. And some sectors have avoided investing in technology and switching to less labour intensive models because of the availability of low-cost labour. But clearly, EEA mobility has been a boon to many employers, especially smaller firms and those requiring lower-skilled employees.

The second virtue of this model was to allow EEA migrants a high degree of flexibility in their mobility decisions. The free movement framework has allowed them to hold down often precarious, seasonal and low-paid work, because of the possibility of returning home between jobs, bringing over family to help with caring, accessing tax credits and benefits, as well as public services. And it has allowed people to adjust their plans on where to live and work, and when to stay or return, allowing them to deal with uncertainty and risk, and their changing life circumstances.

This set of arrangements has undoubtedly facilitated the flexible matching of labour to skills across the country – and has aided integration in local communities. By contrast, Tier 2 provisions impose a much more rigid framework, with limited potential for these types of adjustments.

Flexibility across the UK

But I want to emphasise a third way in which these provisions have been flexible: they have served to accommodate quite divergent immigration goals across areas of the UK. Let’s consider how immigration has been framed over the past decades. At UK level, the rhetoric on EEA mobility initially revolved around its benefits for the UK labour market and economy. At a time of high employment and economic growth in the early to mid 2000s, EEA workers filled shortages, boosted productivity and growth, and contributed to the public purse.

As the UK economy contracted after 2008, and successive governments started to limit immigration, the story amongst economic experts and business circles was still one of addressing skills shortage – with the emphasis shifting to the highly qualified. Increasingly, those with lower skills were seen as a problem, and the EEA framework blamed for preventing the government from selecting those (high-skilled) immigrants seen as most economically beneficial.

Scotland and free movement

But in Scotland, EEA nationals across all skills levels continued to be welcomed as contributing not just to the economy, but to key demographic goals. And here we need to understand the radically distinct ways in which immigration is framed in Scotland. Contrary to the labour market/economic model prevailing in the South East of England (and in the UK debate more generally), Scottish policy makers have long viewed immigration as a crucial part of their population growth strategy.

Scotland was plagued by a declining population until the late 1980s. And with its longer, traumatic history of depopulation in the 19th century, the spectre of population decline continues to weigh heavily in government planning. Through the 2000s and 2010s, Scotland was able to stem population decline – and indeed enjoy modest growth – thanks to immigration. Some of this immigration is from the rest of the UK, but increasingly, the lion’s share has been from overseas, and especially EEA countries. In 2016, for example, Scotland experienced net immigration of 31,700 – of which 22,900 (72%) were from overseas, and just 8,800 from other parts of the UK.

Now population growth isn’t just about abstract numbers. It underpins economic growth, and – crucially – helps offset the acute problems caused by population ageing. Scotland’s population is set to age more swiftly than the UK average, creating huge fiscal problems (paying for pensions, health and social services), as well as labour shortages. Immigration is seen as key to addressing this.

Depopulation is felt most acutely in remote rural and coastal areas of Scotland. Here, the effects of declining and ageing population are already setting in, creating not just labour shortages in key industries (e.g. agriculture, forestry, food processing and tourism), but also jeopardising the provision of public services such as health and schools. Again, EEA nationals have helped offset these problems, with families settling across all areas of Scotland, and integrating into local communities.

Thus for Scotland, immigration isn’t just about an economic calculation based on labour and skills gaps. It is also about addressing a wider set of demographic challenges, with very real consequences for wider society, including the viability of remote communities.

A One-Size fits all approach will cause problems

EEA mobility has masked these differences. It has proved adept in addressing a wide range of economic, social and demographic challenges across the UK. But the types of immigration policies likely to replace this framework are unlikely to be so accommodating. The emphasis in current debates – including the leaked Home Office paper – is on more limited routes, which prioritise high skills, with lower-skilled occupations enjoying only restricted rights, and no pathway to permanent settlement. This package will do little to attract the volume of immigration sought by the Scottish government. And it will prove difficult, if not impossible, to attract and retain migrants not meeting these skills requirements, especially remoter areas.

The UK government is predictably wary of allowing Scotland and other regions to pursue a more liberal approach (various options for ‘differentiated’ or ‘regionalised’ policies have been mooted – see our paper on this subject). With the government’s net migration target still in place, and the perceived need to show that Brexit will bring back ‘control’ of immigration, the last thing Theresa May wants to do is let the Scots develop a more permissive approach. All the more so given expected media reporting on Scotland as a ‘back door’ to the rest of the UK.

But the UK government would do well to acknowledge the very different set of concerns animating Scottish policy-makers – concerns which, significantly, are shared across all the main political parties in Scotland. Westminster and Whitehall need to engage in debate about the demographic challenges facing Scotland – and recognise the country’s distinctive policy approach to its framing of immigration goals. EEA mobility has masked these divergences. Brexit will mean they surface with a vengeance, creating another faultline in already fraught Union politics.

This blog was first posted on the Scottish Centre for European Relations website.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Scottish independence | Leave a comment

After border control: how internal controls are becoming the most potent tool in immigration enforcement

Last Wednesday, the UK Government published its long-awaited Position Paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland, setting out how it hoped to maintain a border-free zone with Ireland once it has left the EU.

Section 2. of the paper deals with maintenance of the Common Travel Area – suggesting how the UK and Ireland might sustain free movement and rights of Irish and UK nationals post-Brexit. Many commentators have questioned how these provisions can be preserved, once the UK starts to impose restrictions on the free movement of EEA nationals. But the paper helpfully clarifies a few misconceptions that have caused much confusion over the past month.

The key point is that any immigration restrictions on EEA nationals are likely to be enforced post-entry. In other words, immigration control won’t take place at the border, but once people are in the UK. Indeed, it is likely that EEA nationals will continue to be able to enter the UK (as visitors) after Brexit. What will change is not their ability to travel to the UK, but their right to reside and work in the country. Once the UK leaves the Single Market, it is assumed that EEA nationals will no longer enjoy an automatic entitlement to live and work in the UK. And these new restrictions will be enforced through checks and controls on access to employment, benefits and services.

The UK is rightly confident in its ability to enforce immigration rules through such internal checks. Over the past few decades the government has been rolling out its capacity to control non-nationals resident in the UK. Key to this approach is to enlist organizations in other sectors – whether employers, social services, higher education, healthcare, private housing, or banks – to enforce restrictions on the access of irregular immigrants to social and economic services. Most notably, employers and higher education organizations have been given the role of ‘sponsors’ who are delegated the responsibility of monitoring employees and students from outside the EU. These policies are intended to create a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants, making it impossible for them to carve out a viable life in the UK. This approach recognises that border control cannot effectively stop irregular migration, a large portion of which involves overstay of visas.

Of course, it is always possible that EEA nationals may successfully evade these controls. But they will have limited incentives to do so – given the risks and difficulties associated with trying to access employment, housing, banking or health without authorisation. Indeed, the types of mobility most associated with irregular stay and work involve those employed in lower-skilled, lower-paid and less regulated sectors – such as informal work in domestic services or some areas of agriculture, construction, hospitality and catering, where employers may have less incentive to check documentation and employ workers on the books. Recall, too, that those most likely to be drawn into such irregular work and stay are those with limited life prospects in their country of origin – those without attractive or viable alternatives. So irregular status in the UK is unlikely to be an appealing long-term prospect for nationals from relatively stable and prosperous EEA countries.

What may be more of a headache for the UK government is potential cross-border flows of non-EEA nationals, especially those with the features described above – escaping difficult conditions at home, and employed in lower-skilled and less regulated sectors. Here, there may be some potential for cross-border movements resulting in irregular stay and work. But here, as the paper points out, UK and Irish policy is broadly aligned. Neither country is part of the Schengen Zone – and they have developed close cooperation on visa and entry policies for third country nationals. The principal risk here is if Ireland were to join Schengen – a prospect that seems highly unlikely, given both Ireland and the EU’s support for sustaining the CTA.

So the paper doesn’t offer much that is new or surprising on immigration control. But the paper’s explicit clarification of these points about border and internal immigration control does offer food for thought.

First, it weakens one of the arguments marshalled against Scotland (or other parts of the UK) adopting a differentiated approach to immigration. One of the main arguments against such a devolved approach is that it risks onward movement from Scotland to the rest of the UK – Scotland would become a ‘back door’ for immigrants. But this position paper acknowledges that this is not a problem in relation to Ireland, even in the event of the UK leaving the Single Market – that much immigration control effectively takes place post-entry, and that it is possible to align visa policy for third-country nationals. So that knocks out one of the main arguments for refusing Scotland more autonomy over its immigration policy (see our recent paper on this-authored with Sarah Kyambi and Saskia Smellie).

Second, it implies that future UK immigration policy may rely more on such internal controls. The subtle message of the paper seems to be: trust us, we have further plans in this area. The area of internal immigration controls has evolved rapidly over the past years. But successive governments have also been frustrated at resistance from some sectors, who are reluctant to play a role in enforcement (teachers and doctors have been notably reticent about complying). Remember, too, the demise of Labour’s universal ID card plan – a scheme which may well be revived to deal with new migration control challenges. It wouldn’t be surprising if such proposals find their way back onto the agenda. In short, we are likely to see a further push for these forms of post-entry control.

As a final thought, if the UK is developing internal enforcement in this way, it begs the question as to whether such controls could address concerns about EEA immigration – those very concerns that prompted many to support Brexit. One of the reasons the UK has implemented free movement provisions in a less robust way than some of its continental neighbours is its lack of state capacity to monitor the whereabouts of non-nationals (an issue we are exploring in our ESRC project on “Seeing Illegal Immigrants”). The UK lacks the type of registration system and ID cards that most EU countries have had for decades. The UK is also hampered in this by its welfare system. EU countries with contributory welfare systems are better equipped to exclude new (EU) immigrants from welfare benefits. In the event of the UK deciding it needs to accept free movement provisions to retain access to the Single Market, the UK government is likely to need to rethink these provisions.

So whether in or out of the Single Market, we should watch this space. The exigencies of immigration control are likely to have a profound effect on how the state monitors, and allocates resources to, its population.






Posted in Brexit, Immigration | Leave a comment

Sustaining Immigration to Scotland After Brexit: What are the Options?

Today we launched a report which looks at the options for a ‘differentiated’ approach to immigration policy in Scotland.

The report provides a rigorous tool for appraising a range of approaches, drawing on experiences from across Europe, Canada and Australasia. The different options are rated on their potential to address Scottish immigration needs and also their practical and political viability for the UK as a whole.

The report says that the schemes best suited to address Scotland’s economic and demographic needs – such as the points-based system used in Australia and Canada – are potentially the most difficult to sell politically. The Australian/Canadian systems offer a flexible tool for selecting immigrants, and foster integration through allowing generous access to permanent residence.

While such a scheme would be practically viable for Scotland, it would require a substantial shift in public perceptions and in the position of the current UK Government, which favours reducing immigration.

More politically feasible options include making smaller adjustments to the current immigration system to meet skills and labour shortages. Options include adjusting current Tier 2 schemes to allow lower skills or salary thresholds for Scottish employers, or reintroducing a post-study work scheme.

The report warns against regulating lower-skilled immigration through temporary and seasonal schemes that offer limited rights and protection for workers. It is in lower-skilled jobs ¬ the part of the economy that employs most EEA nationals – where labour gaps are most likely to appear post-Brexit.

Instead, there is a need to design systems that encourage the workers that Scotland needs to settle and integrate in Scotland.

The report was co-authored with Sarah Kyambi and Saskia Smellie, colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. You can read the full report here.

You can also read coverage of the report in the Herald.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Scottish independence | Leave a comment

The rejection of expertise damages public debate, but it also creates risks for populist governments

One common feature of populist anti-immigration movements is their eschewal of expertise. Populist movements mobilise support through claiming to articulate the interests of ‘the people’ as against established institutions and elites. They mobilise support against a discredited ruling elite and their values: not just those seen as part of the political and economic establishment but also the media, academics and other experts (Canovan 1999). While populism does not necessarily imply the rejection of technocratic measures (Mudde 2004), populist styles of mobilisation tend to reject complex, technical arguments in favour of simple claims and spontaneous action.

This implies that populist claims are not typically backed up with ‘evidence’ or specialised experience. Part of their appeal may derive precisely from their defiance of such expertise. As Michael Freeden puts it, populist claims are characterised by their simplicity and urgency – they should not be ‘adulterated by reflection and deliberation’. And they promise immediate fulfilment – dispensing with planning and negotiation in order to achieve instantaneous results.

This might imply that populist parties are shifting debate away from more technical or evidence-based forms of deliberation – what in previous work I have termed ‘technocratic modes of settlement’. They are the defenders par excellence of supposedly ‘democratic’ modes of settlement. They want to let ‘the people’ decide.

Yet moderate parties do not necessarily embrace this anti-expert mode of settlement. They may continue to evoke more technocratic or expert sources to underpin their claims. They may still see evidence and specialised knowledge as carrying particular authority in debates on immigration. In this sense, the mode of settlement for weighing up rival claims may itself be contested: there may be quite different understandings of what constitute appropriate ways of evaluating competing claims. In other words, there may be a divide between protagonists who continue to invoke expertise as relevant to deliberation on immigration policy issues, and those who see it as irrelevant.

This type of fracture appears increasingly evident in public political debates across liberal democratic countries experiencing a rise in populist parties. It implies that political contestation goes beyond substantive claims about appropriate policies: it involves more radical disagreement about what constitute legitimate and appropriate modes of settling political debate. So the divide is not just ideological, it reflects fundamentally different epistemological positions.

This is not just a problem for public political deliberation. It also creates a number of challenges for policy-making in national administrations. One of the features of populist claims-making is that it is not constrained by evidence or expert knowledge about the causes and dynamics of social problems, or about the sorts of interventions that may be effective in steering them. Thus the populist rejection of expertise creates an awkward gap between the types of claims grounding pledges, and prevalent modes of knowledge use within the civil service. Populist politics invokes different causal stories about policy problems and responses, drawing on quite distinct sources of knowledge (such as anecdote, public myths, or dystopian scenario-building).

The gap is likely to be especially pronounced where populist movements offer up specific pledges or commit themselves to precise outcomes which can be measured. Incumbents seeking to mobilise support through signalling commitment to populist goals will face substantial challenges when it comes to implementing them.

This clearly creates political risks for populist parties that achieve political power. In many ways, such movements will be more comfortable in opposition than as incumbents. Once in power, they risk being exposed as unable to deliver their simplistic and overly ambitious pledges. This creates what I have termed a ‘populist gap’: a discrepancy between what opposition parties may claim, and what they can feasibly achieve once in government.

How populist-oriented governments manage this risk depends in part on how far they can sustain their narratives about policy problems and their government’s performance, in the face of contradictory evidence. Where the impacts of interventions are diffuse and difficult to measure and attribute, populist governments may evade exposure – and this may well be the case in areas such as immigration control and immigrant integration.

But where their performance is subject to such observation and measurement, then they may be exposed as unable to achieve their goals – as may be the case with, for example, reducing asylum or immigration inflows. In such areas, voters are likely to be disillusioned at the failure of governments to deliver.

So while we may be distressed at the eschewal of expertise and evidence, it is precisely this rejection that creates the most serious risks for populist governments. Where their claims cannot be delivered, they risk exposure. And this exposure is most likely to occur in those areas where their outputs can be monitored.  In this sense, we might want to embrace quantitative targets as a tool for exposing the unfeasibility of governments’ promises. Targets may be distorting and simplifying, but their capacity to hold expose unrealistic claims that have no grounding in evidence creates a strong tool of accountability.

Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Symbolic politics | Leave a comment

Taking back control of ideas: How politicians can shape public debates on immigration

Christina Boswell and James Hampshire

New proposals on how to regulate immigration after Brexit are coming thick and fast. But there’s a lot of muddled thinking from the main political parties, especially regarding how to respond to anti-immigrant sentiment amongst sections of the public.

Politicians and commentators often fall into one of two traps. Either they take anti-immigrant sentiment as a given – a legitimate democratic preference, which needs to be taken at face value and respected. On this view, the role of mainstream political parties is to allay concerns through introducing more stringent controls and tougher integration measures.

Alternatively, politicians and pundits understand anti-immigrant sentiment as a problem of ignorance. On this account, large sections of the public hold inaccurate beliefs about the scale and impacts of immigration, and the answer is to better educate people, supply them with robust evidence and facts in order to bust the myths about immigration, and encourage a more enlightened approach.

To be sure, anti-immigrant sentiment and misinformation cannot be ignored. Opposition to immigration is often based on real anger and anxiety about voters’ socio-economic situation, even if many voters do not have accurate information about how immigration affects the economy or public services.

Yet such anxieties are not generally caused by immigration, even if they are readily channelled into concerns about it. Throughout history, immigrants and minority groups have served as a lightning rod for absorbing insecurity and social division. It is much easier to blame foreigners than to understand the complex structural factors that shape our lives.

This is where political elites and the stories they tell — or do not tell — come in. In trying to persuade a sceptical public that immigration is not the threat many of them perceive it to be, narratives and images are probably more important than statistics and data. People do not rationally weigh up evidence, and decide the most appropriate way of venting their concerns. They are far more likely to accept claims that chime with their background beliefs about society or social problems.

In a recent paper we explore how these beliefs shape debates about immigration. We begin from the observation that every society has a repertoire of background ideas which influence collective narratives about social problems. We draw on Vivien Schmidt’s distinction between two levels of ideas. The first, ‘public philosophies’, represent the broad worldviews that shape our beliefs about identity, belonging, and the good society. For example, British self-identity embodies a strong conception of fairness linked to waiting one’s turn and playing by the rules, and it has incorporated hyphenated identities in ways that suggest a less than rigid notion of ethnic criteria for membership. Anti-immigrant sentiment is often articulated in the form of resentment about protecting privileged access to welfare and jobs, rather than in cultural or racial terms.

The second level is ‘programmatic ideas’ about the sorts of policy interventions that work in steering immigration. For example, the UK government tends to emphasise border control and deterrence as effective control mechanisms, while also operating a selective immigration system based on employer demand, albeit with numerical caps. Increasingly, public debate has coalesced around the idea that higher skilled immigration brings economic benefits, while lower skilled, ‘uncontrolled’ immigration places a burden on the public purse.

These background ideas – programmatic but also public philosophies – are not immutable. There is typically a range of values and beliefs that shape narratives of social problems, and these frequently conflict with one another. Politicians can draw on these selectively to construct compelling stories about immigration and its effects.

In our paper, we identify some of the strategies through which politicians can select and shape background ideas about immigration. Political leaders can selectively marshal ideas, foregrounding particular strands of public philosophy over others. And they can draw on shared narratives about policy legacies, to discredit or bolster claims about future policies. We show how such strategies influenced discourse on labour migration in the early 2000s in the UK and Germany.

In the early 2000s, New Labour attempted to justify a new approach by invoking British values of tolerance and diversity, and was successful – at least for a brief period – in uniting mainstream parties and the media around a narrative about the economic benefits of immigration and diversity. In doing so, Blair and his cabinet tapped into public philosophies of Britain as a cosmopolitan and multicultural nation, and programmatic ideas about the importance of attracting skilled workers to boost productivity and growth.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its Green coalition partner in the early 2000s attempted to promote a similar approach, drawing on programmatic ideas about Germany as a cutting edge economy attracting the best skills. But the government was initially thwarted in making its case by a Christian Democratic opposition that invoked more protectionist ideas. Paradoxically, over time, SPD/Green ideas about Germany’s need for immigration ushered in a profound shift in background ideas about immigration. This shift underpinned incremental steps towards a more progressive and economically-oriented approach to labour migration.

What is the lesson from this for political leadership on immigration issues? We suggest that political elites can play an important role in shaping narratives of immigration. While they need to anticipate and respond to voters’ preferences, politicians can also exercise influence by invoking background ideas about what sorts of approaches are feasible and legitimate.

Invoking public philosophies, especially those based on normative values, can be used to mobilise identification with – even pride in – shared values and history. See, for example, how the Blair government’s references to Britain’s history of openness underpinned support for immigration policy liberalization. Or, more recently, how invoking Britain’s legacy in assisting Jewish refugees through the Kindertransport has been used by campaigners such as Lord Dubs to exert a powerful moral effect in debates on child refugees.

Yet these examples stand out precisely because they cut against the grain of recent developments in the UK. As the narratives of the far right and the anti-immigrant press have gained prominence, the onus has shifted from public philosophies based on openness and diversity, to those invoking protectionism and nationalism. This has enabled the emergence of beliefs that immigrants are responsible for social problems such as hospital waiting times or housing shortages.

These beliefs will not be shifted by bombarding voters with data, since people rarely change their minds when presented with contrary evidence. Paradoxically, therefore, a more rational debate about immigration cannot be purely rationalistic. Instead, politicians who want to challenge ignorance and prejudice need to construct narratives about immigration and its place in our society which draw on existing public philosophies of openness and inclusion. These public philosophies do exist and they have been mobilized in the recent past. They can and should be resuscitated.


Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy | 1 Comment

Assessing proposals for post-Brexit immigration policy: devolution or a tiered approach?

It’s been a busy few days for immigration policy wonks. On Thursday 5th, the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, headed by Chuka Umunna, proposed a new approach to immigration policy, including proposals for more robust measures on integration and for the devolution of immigration policy-making to sub-national regions. And on Saturday, Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds put forward a plan for a post-Brexit immigration policy based on preferential treatment for EU nationals.

While these contributions proposed different approaches, they were based on similar premises, namely:

  1. That the British public has articulated a clear preference for more robust control of immigration; and that political parties need to recognise and respond to this desire, or risk further erosion of trust and a serious democratic deficit.
  2. That labour migration brings important economic and social benefits, and many sections of the British economy are dependent on migrant labour. Thus a radical restriction of current flows would be neither economically desirable, nor feasible.

Taken together, these two considerations imply a serious tension between popular preferences for restriction, and the economic case for a more liberal approach. In previous blogs, I have shown how this is a classic dilemma for liberal democratic welfare states. So how do the recent proposals seek to resolve the tension?

Both of the proposed approaches involve setting up channels to sustain current inflows of EU immigration, but in a way designed to reassure voters that the UK does effectively control immigration. Indeed, the real challenge lies in this second aspect of the proposals: how far they can convince voters that a post-Brexit Britain immigration policy is meeting public concerns about the scale and impacts of immigration.

The all-party group on social integration suggests two main ways of reassuring the public that the government is serious about controlling immigration. (1) First, the proposal revives a well-established ‘dualist’ approach in post-war UK immigration policy: restricting new entry, whilst promoting the rights and integration of those immigrants already here. The proposals of the all-party group reinvigorate the focus on integration, which has effectively been sidelined by a government keen to encourage return migration in order to meet its net migration target. The paper proposes financial support for local communities and new policies to promote integration as well as introducing more robust language requirements. This is certainly welcome, and could potentially go some way to alleviating local grievances and tensions, at least in the medium to long-term (although injecting resources into integration always runs the risk of exacerbating local grievances about immigrants are receiving preferential treatment).

(2) Second, the proposal seeks to address the tension between public concerns and economic considerations through a differentiated regional approach. It suggests that the devolved administrations and city-regions be given more autonomy in setting thresholds and selecting which types of labour migrants to admit. The rationale for this is that different regions in the UK may have distinct preferences and needs – for example as a function of varying demographic profiles, economic sectors, or public attitudes. The report mentions the Canadian regional points-based system as a possible template for this, but suggests the need for further discussion of the different options.

Such a devolved approach could in principle cater for differential economic and demographic conditions. It is less obvious how far it would address public concerns about control. One key aspect here is the question of retention. Regional systems are unable to limit the onward movement of those granted permanent residence or citizenship (it would be difficult to limit free movement once someone has accrued extended UK residency rights). This has been a feature of the Canadian and Australian regional systems, where studies have shown that there is often substantial onward movement once people are entitled to relocate. Another concern is that a differentiated regional approach may not lead to a reduction in aggregate net migration figures. Indeed, such an approach would need to be accompanied by much more nuanced, regional data on net migration than are currently available. (Or, of course, scrapping the net migration figure entirely…)

On a more symbolic level, it is difficult to see how a UK government could claim to be asserting control while devolving decision-making to regions and cities (possibly run by left-wing administrations!).

There are also questions about how far regions can act as legitimate decision-making units on an issue as salient as immigration. The devolved administrations represent more mature polities, in which many institutions and policies are already autonomous, and the public is accustomed to its (regional) political parties articulating distinct claims and representing the distinct preferences of that geographical unit. This is less clearly the case for the ‘city areas’ identified in the paper (although London may be an exception). Given the asymmetrical nature of federalism in the UK, it’s unclear how a separate regional approach to immigration would be legitimate for most sub-national areas. Indeed, any regional deviation from the (more restrictive) UK-level ‘default’ would need to be carefully deliberated and justified at regional level, in order to avoid the sort of elitist, economically driven policy that is now perceived to have been so problematic at UK level over the past decade. So while this devolved approach may conceivably work for a region like Scotland (and has been mooted here for a decade or more), it’s less clear how it could offer a more general fix across the UK.

So what of the second proposal from Kinnock and Reynolds? Their favoured approach is to address public concerns about immigration control through another form of disaggregation: not differentiating between regions, but between skills levels. They suggest granting preferential treatment to EU nationals, but separating these into two distinct ‘tiers’ (not to be confused with the current 5-tier immigration system). The proposed tier 1 would cover high skilled professions (they name doctors, engineers and teachers as examples). EU nationals with the relevant skills, qualifications, and with a job offer, would be allowed to work in the UK in these occupations. Tier 2 comprises semi and low-skilled workers who would be admitted in accordance with quotas set by the government and social partners, in an arrangement reminiscent of post-war European guest-worker systems.

This approach makes a nod to survey findings that British voters are more accepting of the economic case for high skilled workers than they are for low-skilled. Admitting high skilled professionals is likely to be more politically palatable. But the approach also preserves channels for low-skilled employment which, after all, comprises the bulk of EU immigration. (Even though EU nationals in the UK are on average better qualified than UK ones, many end up taking on less skilled jobs.) Importantly, the authors want to ensure these quotas are not so generous as to displace indigenous workers, or to disincentivise investment in training, or restructuring sectors with low productivity.

Kinnock and Reynolds further suggest that this approach would provide a good basis for negotiating more extended access to the single market – it offers a ‘win-win’ for the UK and EU. Here I am less convinced. If this 2-tier system isn’t a case of the ‘cherry-picking’ so castigated by EU leaders, I don’t know what is. It seems unlikely that the EU would accept this package as remotely equivalent to sustaining rights of free movement. The notion that the stay of highly skilled EU nationals would be permitted only for specified occupations and contingent on a ‘confirmed’ job offer implies a rather restrictive regime – certainly compared to current free movement provisions, and even in comparison to typical points-based systems, under which individuals can enter and seek work based on their occupational qualifications or human capital. It is even less appealing for low-skilled workers, who enter under a quota scheme and are presumably locked into lower-skilled jobs with limited possibilities of mobility.

However, leaving aside the question of how it would play in Brexit negotiations, this second approach may be more promising in terms of winning public support. Basing labour migration policy on hard-nosed economic arguments about skills or occupational shortages may well play better with the public, offering a clear narrative about the rationale for admission. And the onus on selecting which sectors and occupations need immigrant labour would help signal that the government is in control.

Such an occupational/sectoral approach could incorporate a regional dimension – but indirectly, through the sectors it prioritises. It could include more extensive regional lists to reflect distinct labour needs in different parts of the country. And, as suggested in the report, it could revive something like the Fresh Talent initiative that would allow graduates of UK universities to work in the UK once their studies are finished – an approach that again can work well for regions and cities hosting large numbers of students.

Indeed, I suspect this sort of approach may well emerge as the preferred framework for post-Brexit immigration policy: a system that gives preferential treatment to EU nationals in a way that largely preserves current flows; while allowing more leverage in identifying sectors or occupations in need of labour. Whether or not it constitutes much of a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations is more doubtful. But such preferential treatment could be assist the conclusion of bilateral arrangements with other EU member states – for example ensuring skilled UK nationals can also work in Munich, or that UK pensioners can still spend their retirement years in the Costa del Sol.

In short, both reports contain very useful ideas. We need a revived focus on integration and enhanced support for local areas. We should further explore options for devolved arrangements – although I am doubtful how far these would be politically viable beyond the case of Scotland. And we need to consider how best to sustain current EU mobility in a way that reassures the public that the UK is managing immigration. It won’t be enough to keep us in the single market. But the alternative would be an unmanaged approach that fails to address local pressures and integration challenges, and that probably ends up admitting high numbers of immigrants without a clear narrative about choice and control. A bit like the current approach, then, but with far higher levels of disaffection on the part of disillusioned Brexit voters.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Scottish independence | Leave a comment

What might a post-Brexit immigration policy look like?

In previous blogs, I’ve explored the possibility of a deal that combines Single Market access with some restrictions on free movement. Legally and technically, this still seems possible, and there are certainly precedents that could be built on. But it’s looking more and more remote in political terms – especially given the more hardline approach being articulated by Theresa May on free movement, and increasing anxiety among EU leaders about a Brexit ‘contagion’ effect.

So let’s assume the UK negotiates a deal involving withdrawing from provisions on free movement. What sort of immigration policy would be likely to follow? Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, I would suggest policies will seek to preserve current flows of EU immigration as far as possible.

First, we shouldn’t expect to see a substantial decrease in the volume of EU immigration. There will be strong pressures to protect immigration flows for businesses and service providers in those sectors heavily dependent on EU nationals. Where such dependency exists, it will be extremely difficult for the government to restrict flows. Indeed, this has been the clear lesson from the Conservative attempt to limit non-EU immigration since 2010. Despite introducing an array of measures to try to meet its net migration target, it has failed to reduce non-EU flows, largely because of the substantial costs that would accrue to business and higher education. If non-EU flows were so difficult to restrict, there’s no reason to think EU flows will be any easier to limit.

Indeed, many leading Brexiteers were keen to stress that leaving the EU was not about reducing immigration per se, but controlling which immigrants we admit. So we shouldn’t expect a huge change in the volume of flows, or the sectors and occupations in which EU immigrants work.

Neither should we expect a significant change in the composition of flows. There will be good reasons to sustain current EU flows. Businesses will have adapted to recruiting and employing workers from particular countries or places. They may rely on employees with particular linguistic skills, knowledge of local markets or contacts. And not least, the UK government may want to create channels for EU immigration as part of reciprocal agreements. So there may be a case for sustaining current patterns of inflow to ensure similar outflows of UK nationals to particular EU countries can continue.

This all implies that the UK will have a strong interest in creating new or expanded channels to recruit a good proportion of those EU immigrants who would previously have entered via free movement provisions. So what sorts of policies might best support these flows?

May’s government has shown little enthusiasm for the sort of points-based system previously advocated by Gove and Johnson. However, the government might want to consider introducing some other kind of human capital-based system for attracting high skilled EU workers. This could be something along the lines of the ‘fresh talent’ scheme for EU graduates. This scheme allowed graduates of Scottish universities to work for up to 2 years in Scotland, and then either leave or switch to another visa scheme. It would be a good way to ensure an ongoing supply of EU students to UK universities – which is likely to be a priority post-Brexit. And it would imply a continued flow of young, qualified graduates with good knowledge of UK life, but with a clear limit to the duration of the scheme.

Beyond targeting graduates or introducing a points-based system, there are two main options for sustaining high skilled EU immigration. The first is an expansion of the current 5-tier system. The government could expand Tier 2 to allow more skilled EU immigrants to be employed in the UK, including through intra-company transfers, and the occupational shortage list. However, it may be difficult to prioritise EU nationals under the existing scheme. Non-EU governments whose nationals are currently admitted under the Tier system may be concerned their nationals will be displaced, and such a two-track scheme may be complex to explain and cumbersome to administrate.

A second scenario, therefore, is a series of bespoke arrangements for EU nationals. For example, the government could introduce a more lax residency test for EU nationals, allowing employers to recruit them for jobs that can’t be filled by UK nationals (e.g. after advertising nationally for a set period). Or they could identify occupations, skills or sectors for which employers are permitted to recruit EU nationals (similar to the current occupational shortage list). A third alternative would be to allow those with qualifications in a relevant occupation or sector (e.g. ICT ) to enter the UK for a specified period to look for work (a model for this would be the German Green Card scheme). Such schemes would need to be relatively attractive in terms of length of stay and residency rights, to appeal to highly qualified immigrants.

What of low-skilled work? We know that a large proportion of EU immigrants fill jobs at the lower end of the skills spectrum, for example in hospitality and catering, health and social care, manufacturing and construction. An end to free movement will cause just as much disruption for this part of the labour market. Here, I suspect the government will be more circumspect about introducing new schemes for recruiting EU immigrants. While there appears to be public support for high-skilled migrants, public anxiety has tended to focus on workers filling lower-skilled jobs.

But eliminating demand for such labour would require radical restructuring in a number of sectors, and/or providing sufficient incentives for domestic workers to meet gaps in labour supply. In many cases, such as seasonal jobs or jobs in remote areas, it may be impossible to address shortages without relying on foreign labour. It is therefore likely that the government will need to introduce flexible schemes for sustaining labour supply for certain low-skilled occupations. One option would be to use the (as yet unused) Tier 3 of the current system. However, I suspect the government is more likely to opt for temporary or seasonal schemes where it can. Not only do such schemes allow more flexibility in recruitment, they also imply immigrants will only stay for a short period, thus reducing concerns about integration and impacts on public services. Where immigrants stay for under 12 months, it also means they won’t show up on the net migration statistics, and so will remain under the radar of the government’s net migration target. So for both practical and political reasons, lower-skilled jobs may be the object of temporary labour programmes, possibly administered via bilateral agreements with those EU countries that currently supply large numbers of workers.

In short, I think we can expect a post-Brexit immigration policy to largely replicate current inflows of EU nationals, in terms of both volume and composition. But it will do so in a way that is far more cumbersome and bureaucratically burdensome. And, especially for those employed in low-skilled and temporary work, it will imply a far less attractive bundle of entitlements and labour standards. This, in turn, may even contribute to a higher risk of EU workers undercutting UK nationals, through accepting lower salaries and more precarious conditions. This may be good news for businesses employing EU workers. But it’s hardly good news for EU nationals, and is surely not what was intended by ‘taking back control’.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration | 1 Comment

Targets and Political Trust: Findings from our ESRC Project

In a slightly longer blog than usual, I set out the main findings from our recently completed ESRC project

Targets and performance indicators have become ubiquitous as techniques of governance. Governments and public service agencies have employed an array of such tools to steer, monitor and evaluate performance. Political leaders have also developed targets to signal their commitment to policy goals. Yet after more than three decades of performance measurement in public policy, most  commentators agree that such tools have produced numerous adverse effects. Performance measurement techniques imply focusing on a limited range of quantitative features or goals, thereby narrowing down the focus of policy-making and political debate. They can create perverse incentives and encourage gaming. Not least, the use of such tools can erode trust within organizations, and even undermine confidence in political leaders and politics.

Given these short-comings, what explains the persistent appeal of performance measurement? And what effects do such techniques have on policy, politics, and public administration? The Politics of Monitoring was a three-year project sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which explored the factors shaping the use of targets and performance indicators in UK policy and politics; and examined their various effects on policy-making and public debate. The project focused on three policy areas: immigration, climate change, and defence procurement. Here I present some of the main findings of the project.


Most analyses of targets and indicators suggest that they are favoured as a means of steering or controlling performance. Such techniques emerge as a response to the outsourcing of public services to  semi-autonomous agencies and the private sector. Performance measurement is a means of enabling governments to govern ‘at a distance’. We suggest that this is only part of the story. Building on Michael Power’s work on auditing, we show how targets and indicators have an important symbolic role: they act as a ‘ritual of verification’ (Power) to those seeking to steer performance. They offer  symbolic reassurance to the authors of targets and their audiences. Targets establish clear thresholds to guide decisions about bestowing and withholding trust. This helps assuage the anxiety of those  attempting to steer policy-making and implementation. The use of performance measurement also helps bestow credibility on organizations and their political leaders, shoring up confidence in their capacity to control policy-making and implementation. In this way, targets and indicators help address problems of trust in the dealings between political leaders and those tasked with elaborating and implementing policy.

We also show how targets have an important outward-facing function. They are adopted to demonstrate to the public that the government is improving public services, and delivering on its pledges.  Targets create an especially robust and precise tool of accountability. The appeal of this tool is particularly strong given the widely observed crisis of political disenchantment. The allure of targets thus lies not just in their promise of steering public administration, but also in their capacity to address problems of declining public trust in government.

Targets therefore have a dual function: they are adopted to address problems of trust between political leaders and their administrators; and to create public trust in the goals and conduct of political leaders. How far have targets succeeded in producing trust at each of these levels?


The dual function of targets described above can create a number of organizational problems. In our study of asylum targets under the Labour government between 2000-2010, we found that technical  targets designed to steer Home Office performance lacked political resonance, prompting politicians to resort to more politically appealing targets, notably Tony Blair’s prominent target of halving asylum applications. Yet these more politically compelling targets created various pressures and tensions in the Home Office. Targets aimed at mobilising public support were not well designed to address organizational problems (see Boswell 2015 for a full account, or this blog for a shorter version).

In our analysis of targets on defence procurement and asylum, we also found evidence of widescale ‘decoupling’: a gap between formal compliance with targets, and informal organisational practice, which deviated from the underlying rationale informing the targets. Literature on decoupling suggests that such forms of reinterpretation or subversion will be limited where organizations are subjected to clear, precise and robustly monitored targets. Yet in the 2000s, both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office were successful in decoupling their informal practice from formal compliance with targets. Ultimately, it took highly intrusive political intervention by No.10 in the mid-2000s to bring about comprehensive reform of Home Office and UKBA practices. This achieved a closer alignment between formal and informal practices – although at a severe cost to organizational morale and trust between political leaders and civil servants.

In the Ministry of Defence, by contrast, No.10 was unable to impose the top-down reforms required to meet targets. This partly reflected the lower political salience of defence procurement. Asylum had become such a high profile public issue by the early 2000s that the Labour government felt its credibility was dependent on being seen to get a grip on asylum numbers. Defence was never similarly high profile. Moreover, No.10 and the Treasury felt they had less traction over the Ministry of Defence, given the technical complexity of procurement issues, as well as the distinct culture guiding the organization. You can read more about decoupling in the MoD and Home Office in Boswell and Fleming 2015.


It has long been observed that policies can get lost in implementation. We explored some of the problems of implementation by comparing how targets were appropriated and applied in the areas of climate change, defence procurement and immigration.

In Boswell and Rodrigues (2016), we developed John Kingdon’s idea of ‘multiple streams’ to try to understand differential implementation across sectors. We suggested that implementation is most likely to be successful where the policy emanating from central government converges with organizational constructions of problems, and where such policies are sustained by strong political commitment from the centre.

We developed a model of different implementation scenarios, based on combinations of these conditions. We applied the model to the case of targets in our three policy areas between 2000-2010. CO2 targets took the form of ‘bottom-up’ implementation, where policies matched organisational problem constructions, but there was limited political commitment from the centre. The Departments for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) were keen to enhance their leverage by foregrounding the targets. Implementation of defence procurement targets, as we saw, was characterised by widespread decoupling, with the MoD resisting an approach it felt did not address organizational problems, and No.10 lacking sufficient political commitment to impose compliance. Asylum targets initially saw similar decoupling, but intrusive intervention from No.10 led to coercive implementation, which eventually produced an alignment of organizational and political goals.

The analysis showed how organisations can shift between modes of implementation over time, responding to changes in organisational problems and central political commitment to the policy. You can read our article here, or have a look at our policy briefing for Discover Society.


If targets have generally failed to steer public administration in the way intended, how well have they succeeded in building public trust? Targets promise to provide an especially precise and rigorous mechanism of accountability. But our 65 interviews with political actors suggest that targets rarely bring political dividends to their authors. For a start, they often set overly ambitious goals, creating clear political risks. Even when targets are met, they rarely yield the expected media attention or rise in public satisfaction. Our respondents stressed how disappointed Labour politicians and officials were that the media was not interested in reporting on successful targets.

This is confirmed by our analysis of media coverage of asylum and net migration targets between 2002-2014. We found that press reporting is largely impervious to data demonstrating performance to target. Instead, trust in political leaders is grounded in more impressionistic cues such as the perceived integrity of politicians. Thus although Blair’s government was able to meet its target of halving asylum applications, press reporting was largely sceptical of the government’s motives and methods of meeting the target. By contrast, Cameron’s inability to meet his ambitious net migration target was widely put down to external and intractable obstacles beyond his control.

The analysis challenges mainstream accountability models, according to which public support is based on an appraisal of the performance or conduct of politicians. Instead, it suggests that the types of judgements underpinning political support and trust are based on more impressionistic beliefs about the values, integrity and authenticity of those asserting claims. (This research is forthcoming – please see our project website for updates.)


Targets may have a limited or even negative impact on public trust. Yet they can have a number of other, often anticipated, effects on political debate. One of these concerns the effects of quantitative measures on the way issues are framed. The use of numbers to describe policy problems and goals can carry particular authority in political debate. Statistical measures are associated with impartiality, rigour and precision. They can be embraced as offering particularly robust tools for holding political leaders to account.

Such quantitative framings also carry strong appeal to journalists, offering compelling and authoritative data, and a means of exposing government transgressions. And even where targets and indicators are contested, they can still provide political opponents with an excellent tool for critiquing a government’s record. So opposition parties end up inadvertently buying in to targets, even if they opposed them. At the same time, quantitative targets or indicators provide very simplifying and often distorting descriptions of policy problems. In order to quantify policy issues, we need to classify the entities involved as discrete and equivalent units. Such abstractions can compress important nuances and variations. These simplified classifications can also prove to be very rigid: once statistical categories are created, it may be difficult to adjust or retract them. For these reasons, the authors of targets can become locked in to quantitative formulations of policy problems.

We discuss some of these questions in a co-authored chapter on how targets constrain policy-making. You can also read about the distorting effects of targets in two of our working papers. Yearley and Rodrigues (2016) explore how targets on C02 emissions were effectively ‘blackboxed’: they became taken for granted as ways of framing the problem, thereby removing them from scientific and political scrutiny. Boswell’s (2016) paper on the effects of the net migration target discusses how the target influenced political debate through a ‘classification’ and a ‘measurement’ effect. The argument is also summarised in this blog, and in an article for the Herald.

You can download a PDF pamphlet of the findings here. For more information on the project, please see our website:

Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Targets | 1 Comment

Seeing Illegal Immigrants

We have now officially launched our new ESRC project on ‘Seeing Illegal Immigrants: State Monitoring and Political Rationality’.

The two-year long ESRC-funded project focuses on the ways states have ‘seen’ unauthorized migrants in France, Germany and the UK from the late 1960s to the present day.

We explore which forms of illegality states monitor, and which are left unscrutinised; and investigate the techniques states use to produce knowledge about illegal populations. In doing so, we aim to shed light on what we call the ‘logics of monitoring’ shaping the monitoring practices of different parts of the state. Do public authorities maximise surveillance and control of illegal residents, or do they prefer to cultivate a form of benign neglect or even ‘strategic ignorance’ of these groups?

Our website is up and running, and we have already posted 3 blogs. You can read about the project and the research team here.

If you would like further details about the project, please follow us on Twitter or contact us by e-mail at



Posted in Immigration, Symbolic politics | 1 Comment

How politically viable are proposals for an EU immigration ’emergency stop’?

Arguably the major stumbling block in Brexit negotiations concerns the relationship between membership of the Single Market, and the acceptance of EU provisions on the free movement of workers. A number of commentators have already analysed the options, and weighed up their feasibility. See for example the blog by Jonathan Portes on this, and a recent FT article. Here’s my take on the question. I pay particular attention to the question of political feasibility – both in terms of the EU’s potential to accept one of these deals, and its marketability to Leave voters concerned about immigration.

As one of the ‘four freedoms’, the movement of workers is generally viewed as a core condition of participation in the Single Market. A number of Member States and the Commission have recently restated their position that the commitment to free movement of workers is a non-negotiable part of Single Market access. This may reflect immediate political concerns, as much as a commitment to the fundamental principles of the EU: namely, the need to send an unequivocal signal to Euro-sceptic countries or political parties that a country leaving the EU can cherry-pick provisions.

In principle, one could imagine at least three models for securing some concession on free movement of workers:

  1. More stringent limitations on access to welfare or other rights.

In February 2016, David Cameron’s government negotiated a number of concessions on free movement. While other Member States resisted any provision that would enable the UK to limit the free movement of workers (though see below for a qualification of this), they were more favourable to conditions limiting access of workers to welfare benefits, which was seen as consistent with the rationale underpinning this freedom. It has been suggested that these terms could be extended, for example through only admitting EU immigrants who already have a job offer (though it is very difficult to see how this could be enforced, given that EU nationals are entitled to enter the UK without a visa). Another alternative would be to limit the rights of EU nationals to stay in the UK beyond 3 months, unless they had found work (although it may be difficult to justify this requirement if they could demonstrate they were self-supporting). In effect this would be a more stringent enforcement of existing provisions.

However, this route does not look promising. Cameron’s February deal was interpreted by the UK media and Euro-sceptics (and indeed by this blog) as largely symbolic, and failed to reassure voters that it would mitigate any welfare costs associated with immigration (which in any case are widely considered to be minimal). Since then the debate on EU mobility has been framed very clearly around numbers of immigrants, and their more general impact on public services and jobs, rather than welfare costs. So it is unlikely that further concessions in this area would allay concerns about control of EU immigration.

  1. A quota or cap on EU nationals.

This might be similar to the cap unilaterally announced by the Swiss government after its 2014 referendum. Switzerland has set a cap on annual immigration flows, which it is planning to apply to EU nationals from 2017 onwards. This has encountered serious opposition – and retaliatory measures – from the EU, which does not consider this consistent with Single Market access. A similar idea for a cap was informally mooted by Theresa May in December 2013, in a document suggesting there could be an annual cap of 75,000.

However, it is difficult to see how such a cap would be acceptable to the EU, especially given its clear rejection of this approach in relation to the Swiss. The EU has recently been discussing options for a safeguard mechanism whereby the Swiss could introduce a cap in sectors or regions where it was accepted by the EU that unemployment was well above the national average. It is possible that, were such arrangements to be agreed, they could be seen as a model for UK restrictions. It is difficult to see how the UK could justify restrictions based on regions (given that it does not collect systematic data on regional immigration, or indeed set regional quotas as the Swiss do). The sectoral or occupational approach may be more promising, e.g. with limitations imposed in those sectors facing highest unemployment (though this would require some system for monitoring the employment of EU nationals – see below).

  1. An ‘emergency stop’, involving a temporary halt to EU immigration based on exceptional circumstances.

This appears to be the most promising option. There are three precedents to build on here. The first is the EEA agreement, which includes ‘Safeguard Measures’ permitting parties unilaterally to limit EU immigration if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature arise and are liable to persist. This has been invoked by Liechtenstein, which currently has separate arrangements enabling a cap on levels of EU immigration – so similar to the sort of annual cap arrangement discussed under 2. (although under far more acute pressure in terms of per capita immigration flows than is the case for the UK. Here’s an excellent legal briefing on the EEA mechanism and Liechtenstein’s special deal).

The second precedent is the transitional provisions on free movement available to Member States in the event of the accession of new countries. These provisions allow states to limit free movement for up to 7 years. Interestingly, after the first 5 years transitional provisions for a further 2 years must be justified based on ‘serious disturbances on the labour market, or the threat thereof’. A state that has lifted transitional provisions may also request to re-instate them (within the 7 year period), again based on similar grounds. In a 2004 briefing on these arrangements, the Commission (DG Employment) notes: ‘These “safeguard” clauses have always featured in accession Treaties, but have never been invoked. Therefore the Commission has no practical experience in their operation. However, it is clear that the Commission would expect a Member State to put forward convincing proof of a high level of disturbance on the labour market, in order to justify seeking to re-impose a restriction on free movement of workers, one of the four fundamental freedoms under the EC Treaty.’ So here we find another example of how one might justify an exemption to free movement of workers.

The third precedent is the emergency stop limiting welfare access mentioned above. The so-called ‘alert and safeguard mechanism’ agreed in the European Council declaration of February foresaw setting up provisions to respond ‘to situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time, including as a result of past policies following previous EU enlargements.’ Such inflow would need to be ‘on a scale that affects essential aspects of its social security system, including the primary purpose of its in-work benefits system, or which leads to difficulties which are serious and liable to persist in its employment market or are putting an excessive pressure on the proper functioning of its public services.’ It was assumed that the UK would be deemed to meet these criteria.

While these provisions were intended to justify imposing restrictions on access to in-work benefits, the agreement suggests that there would be a way of formulating criteria justifying an emergency stop in a way that the UK would qualify. It is also interesting to note that the justification of these measures referred to the restriction of free movement, rather than (just) limiting access to welfare benefits: the declaration states that ‘if overriding reasons of public interest make it necessary, free movement of workers may be restricted by measures proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued’; so the restrictions on welfare are clearly designed to limit inflows, rather than (just) reduce its fiscal burden.

So there are plenty of precedents to build on in designing a stop. Of course, there are various practical challenges in implementing such a provision. It assumes that the UK government would be able to keep an accurate record of those who had entered/worked in the UK prior to the introduction of the emergency stop (for example by monitoring who had already been granted a NI number). An emergency stop based on an annual cap (rather than an outright stop) would also require the government keeping track of the number of those who had entered – for example through reinstating the Worker Registration Scheme, introduced in 2004 for A-8 nationals, as a condition of employment; or through NI registrations.

Note that the EU 2004 Citizens Directive allows that:‘For periods of residence of longer than three months, Member States should have the possibility to require Union citizens to register with the competent authorities in the place of residence, attested by a registration certificate issued to that effect.’ And it further assumes that the government would need to enforce such a registration scheme rigorously (or other forms of internal controls) to avoid EU nationals entering the UK and working on an irregular basis (without registering with the WRS or NI system. Such registration would be especially important given that – as in the case of post-accession transitional arrangements – EU nationals would presumably still be entitled to enter and stay in the UK (but just not to access the labour market).

A second issue relates to the selection of EU immigrants: concerns over EU immigration tend to revolve around those taking up low-skilled jobs, rather than those moving into high-skilled occupations, or those filling acute shortages. In the event of imposing such an emergency stop, it is possible that the UK could continue to recruit selected EU immigrants based on existing schemes for non-EU nationals (Tier 1 or Tier 2), or through a new points-based system (although arguably Tier 1 already offers a model for such a system, so talk of a ‘new points-based system’ is arguably redundant). Alternatively, the government could set up a separate scheme specifically targeted at EU nationals, but with additional requirements linked to skills/ qualifications, income, job offer or occupation.

The other problem with this approach is its necessarily limited duration. Such a stop would most likely be no longer than 7 years duration (similar to the post-accession transition provisions). 7 seems to be the magic number for such mechanisms. This may not be a sufficiently substantial concession to win over pro-Leave supporters who based their decision on concerns about immigration control.

That said, the dynamics of EU immigration suggest that such a stop might have a longer-term impact on mobility. Immigration flows – especially of low skilled migrants – tend to be heavily influenced by ‘migrant networks’: once immigration from a particular region is initiated, communication flows and support mechanisms between sending and destination regions reinforce such flows, creating a self-perpetuating effect. Curtailing such movement over a period of several years may result in suppressing these dynamic effects, thus having a longer-term dampening effect on flows. It should also be noted that immigration flows from A-8 countries appear already to be declining. Inflows from Mediterranean countries affected by economic crisis may have improved within the 12 or so years it might take for such an transitional phase to come to an end (assuming 5 years of negotiation plus 7 years emergency stop).

Finally, it is possible that such a compromise could emerge as more palatable to EU member states where (a) the UK accepts an EEA-type status, so that the concession is granted as part of a deal for non-EU countries (and building on the precedent of existing EEA terms, see above); (b) more generally, the UK is seen as being sufficiently ‘punished’ for Brexit, e.g. through the demotion to EEA-type status under which it foregoes many of the benefits of EU membership while assuming what it considers to be many of its ‘burdens’.

In sum, a combination of Single Market access – as an EU member, or with an EEA-type status – and an emergency stop to free movement could offer a promising approach to retaining Single Market access whilst at least partially allaying public concerns about immigration control. A robust and compelling case would have to be made domestically to convince Leave voters that such a measure would imply regaining ‘control’ over immigration.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration | 2 Comments