Can debates on immigration be ‘evidence-based’? And should they be?

This blog is based on a talk given at the Royal Geography Society on 22 March 2016.

We often hear the view that debates on immigration should be more ‘evidence based’: that they should be informed by expert knowledge and research. But what do we mean by this, and is it achievable?

The notion that policy or political debate should be evidence-based is actually quite recent. In the UK, this idea emerged under the Blair administration from 1997 onwards, when it became fashionable in government circles to talk about the need for evidence-based policy – political interventions informed by the facts, or what ‘works’. This reflected a wider technocratic turn in philosophies of public management. The idea that a large part of government was preoccupied with problems of steering: how to solve complex social and economic problems through regulation. This was in contrast to the traditional preoccupation of welfare states with allocating resources – policies that invoke debates around competing interests and values, rather than technical issues.

Debates on immigration policy in the late 1990s and early 2000s offer a good illustration of this technocratic turn. From around 1999, Immigration Minister Barbara Roche and others in government began to review and commission research on the economic and social impacts of immigration. A new research service was set up in the Home Office, to provide an ‘evidence base’ for policy on immigration and asylum. And political speeches and debate over this period – until the mid-2000s– feature frequent reference to research findings on the economic benefits of immigration.

This was a new way of framing immigration policy debate in Britain, which we can characterise as a ‘technocratic mode of settlement’: the expectation that political debate around immigration should be settled by recourse to expert knowledge or research.

But fast forward to the present, and the tenor of debate is very different indeed. Economic arguments about the effects of immigration appear to play a marginal role in debate. Discussion of the dynamics and effects of migration in the popular media and in party politics are frequently based on simplistic and popular ways of understanding and framing the issues. So what has happened over the past decade to produce such a radical shift in how we debate immigration policy?

First, we should bear in mind that before the late 1990s, UK immigration policy had been largely reactive, more a question of muddling through than planning. To be sure, research on ‘race relations’ exerted some influence on UK approaches towards integration and anti-discrimination legislation in the post-war era. But the UK never had a systematic debate about the economic case for immigration, and there is little evidence that governments drew on research on these questions. More generally, public debate on immigration was quite limited before the 1980s, characterised by a more ‘elitist’ approach to policy deliberation.

The emergence of a more technocratic debate in the early 2000s took many of us by surprise. It was the first time we’d had a debate about the economic aspects of immigration in the UK. One of the reasons this new way of framing the issue was able to take hold may be linked to its very novelty. Unlike other north and west European countries, the UK had no historical memory of actively recruiting immigrants to address labour shortages or boost growth. When German Chancellor Schroeder tried to launch a similar debate in Germany in the early 2000s, it was quickly shot down by his opponents as being elitist and out of touch – and as ignoring the lessons of history (the apparently ‘failed’ guest worker programme).

Another reason for the success of this technocratic framing was that the Labour government effectively channeled public concern into the question of asylum-seekers and irregular migration. Media reporting and political debate in the early 2000s focused almost exclusively on high asylum numbers – effectively distracting commentators from the question of labour migration.

We shouldn’t forget, too, that Britain was seeing a period of rapid growth, and the highest levels of employment for decades. I certainly don’t endorse the view that economic performance is a direct determinant of anti-immigrant sentiment – but low unemployment and rising standards of living certainly help mitigate anxiety about immigration.

The debate began to shift in the mid-2000s. First, media and political attention began to focus on rising numbers of EU immigrants in the UK – especially after the 2004 EU enlargement. The view that immigration brought economic benefits began to be questioned. This culminated in the publication of a House of Lords report of 2008 which was critical of previous claims about the positive fiscal and labour market impacts of immigration to the UK.

What emerged from the mid-2000s  was a more strategic use of research to substantiate different sides of the debate. Research became more politicised, marshalled selectively to support rival claims. The politicisation of research encouraged scepticism about its objectivity. If you can marshal research to support whichever argument you favour, then obviously evidence begins to lose its authority.

At the same time, as public concerns about immigration began to rise, we saw a rising perception that research on immigration was out of touch: elitist, abstracted from the real concerns of ordinary people. Research became discredited, losing its authority as a way of settling political contestation. And – for good or ill – there was an inexorable shift back to a democratic mode of settlement. Lay perspectives began to emerge as more legitimate than expert knowledge on immigration.

This trend was reinforced by party political rhetoric. Both Conservatives and Labour began to backtrack on more positive framing of the economic impacts of immigration. And then in 2010, we see Conservative policies consolidating a very simplistic notion of immigration. The net migration target was premised on a very crude notion that the problem was one of over-crowding, and the goal should be an overall reduction in all types of immigration. This formulation of a single target failed to recognise any distinction between motives for immigration, types of immigrants, impacts on the economy or society, or variation in impacts across the UK. We also see Conservative Party rhetoric and policies reinforcing perceptions about the economic and social costs of immigration – especially regarding welfare dependency, and pressure on public services.

So the technocratic debate of the early 2000s was initially undermined by the politicisation of research, and the discrediting of ‘elitist’ expertise; a trend which has been reinforced by a party political discourse that endorses quite simplistic views about immigration.

So can we get back to the previous type of technocratic debate? Do we want to?

Here, it’s interesting to look to the German case. When the SPD attempt to liberalise labour migration in the early 2000s was blocked, Schroeder set up a cross-party commission on immigration. The commission as composed of representatives from the main political parties, trade unions, business, religious groups and NGOs. It drew on evidence from a range of witnesses and experts. The debate triggered by the commission underpinned a really significant shift in public debates on immigration and asylum policy. It allowed Germans to air concerns about immigration, and in many cases put these in context. To build up a comprehensive picture of the impacts of immigration. And this paved the way of a gradual liberalisation from the late 2000s onwards.

As I’ve argued before, I think we need something like this in the UK. Not in the form of a top-down, elite-led debate, to ‘educate’ the public. We know that won’t work – nor is it desirable in a democracy. At the same time, debate should not be dominated by populist ways of framing of the problem. We need to find the right balance between allowing people to articulate their concerns, and feel they are being taken seriously. And a debate that draws on expert knowledge and evidence to help place these issues in context, and build up a more nuanced and realistic picture of the dynamics and impacts of immigration.

We can’t go back to the elite-led policies of the 1960s, or the technocratic debates of the early 2000s. But neither should we accept the popular framing of immigration in current media and political debates. We need to develop forums that enable us to combine both modes of deliberation.

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