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.

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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.

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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.




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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’.

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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.


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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.

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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.






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