Politics, Knowledge & Migration

When ignorance is bliss: The political risks of putting illegal immigrants on the agenda


Yesterday David Cameron set out a three-point plan for reducing immigration to the UK. With the net migration target slipping further and further from their grasp, the government is understandably shopping around for new solutions. One of the proposals is familiar: seeking to renegotiate the terms of free movement. Although EEA nationals only comprise around half of current immigration flows, there is now a fairly entrenched narrative coupling the problem of immigration control with EU provisions on mobility. The second proposal was sensible, but hardly a direct or short-term solution: reducing the demand for skilled workers by training up UK apprentices. As I argued with some economist colleagues in a report for the European Commission some years ago, predicting which skills and occupations are likely to face shortages over the next 5-10 years is no easy task; incentivising people to train up in these areas, and then to relocate to the part of the country offering the relevant jobs, is equally challenging. But good luck to them.

But it is the third suggestion that I find intriguing: ramping up government policies to tackle illegal immigration. Cameron hinted at a number of measures to make it more difficult for unauthorised immigrants to access housing or employment. I find this new approach intriguing because it effectively opens up a new front in the government’s quest to demonstrate it is reducing immigration. Consecutive UK governments have – which understandably – preferred to retain a degree of opacity in this area. Estimates of the unauthorised population resident in any country are notoriously difficult to produce. Unauthorised immigrants by definition attempt to remain invisible to official structures. The Home Office last commissioned comprehensive research on this question back in 2004, in the form of an estimate by UCL researchers, which – with many caveats – suggested a very broad range of figures.

The lack of regular, reliable information about illegal immigrants resident in the UK has buffered the Home Office and the government from political pressure to tackle the problem. To be sure, consecutive Home Secretaries, including Theresa May, have introduced measures to try to curb the problem. May’s main contributions have been to outsource monitoring practices to higher education, banks and land-lords, and to increase employer penalties for illegally employing non-nationals. But enforcement of such provisions is resource-intensive and often fraught with practical and legal difficulties. Given the current squeeze on Home Office resources, it’s not surprising to see that the number of employers issued with civil penalties for employing illegal immigrants has actually been declining since 2009-10 (see p.11 of this report).

So given the difficulties in monitoring and enforcing rules on unauthorised residence and work, why would the government want to up the ante in this area? Doesn’t it just expose them to unfeasible expectations in an area which is notoriously difficult to control? Presumably the answer is that Cameron’s government is preoccupied with the short-term problem of signalling its resolve to get tough on immigration. Certainly the emphasis on fining employees, rather than employers, suggests a punitive and highly symbolic approach. An even more cynical interpretation would be that Cameron and May know the government can’t be effectively monitored in this area. While there are data on prosecutions and deportations (and these could prove embarrassing if the Home Office fails to deliver), there is no way of reliably counting unauthorised residents. Unlike with the net migration, the government would at least avoid the quarterly torture of having its failure set out in figures.

Nonetheless, I’m still puzzled as to why the government would want to open up this new front. Surely the net migration target presents problems enough. Why raise attention to another aspect of immigration outside of the target, and one which consecutive governments have failed to tackle? They would have done far better to maintain opacity in this morally and legally fraught area of immigration policy.