Pro-Leave proposals on immigration risk creating large-scale irregular migration

One of the more curious features of the EU referendum campaign is how the Leave campaign has positioned itself on immigration. The attempt to mobilise support for Brexit by tapping – and revving up – fears about immigration has been widely discussed. But more intriguing are the various attempts by pro-Leavers to sketch out a post-Brexit immigration policy. And the ideas here have been surprisingly progressive; but, as I shall suggest, likely to yield a range of inadvertent effects. Let’s deal with each in turn.

1. First the Leave campaign launched a proposal for a post-Brexit ‘Australian-style’ points system. This was touted as an alternative to the currently ‘uncontrolled’ EU immigration. The idea is that a future UK government could choose exactly which (high-skilled, presumably) immigrants to admit. It was an odd suggestion, given that we already do have a points system in the UK: Tier 1 of the current system allows for the recruitment of those with ‘exceptional talent’, who can tot up enough points on various criteria. While Tier 1 has been capped by the current government at 1,000, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be extended, and tweaked to prioritise particular sorts of skills or characteristics considered economically desirable.

One of the reasons Tier 1 hasn’t been more widely used (many more immigrants are allowed through Tier 2) is its focus on the characteristics of migrants, rather than labour market needs. By selecting on the basis of the attributes of incomers – their skills, language ability, age, and so on – points-based systems risk admitting people who don’t match existing vacancies, or who end up taking on jobs below their skills level. On a points-based system, you can control who comes in, but not what jobs they do. This is partly why Tier 2 has been seen as more effective, its selection criteria based on employer needs and entry tied to specific jobs.

The idea of a points-based system targeted exclusively at high-skilled migrants also overlooks the problem of shortages in lower-skilled occupations. If the UK were to cut off its supply of EU nationals – 57% of whom already have a job before they arrive in the UK – there would be serious gaps in labour supply. And these are likely to be filled by irregular labour.

2. The second rather counter-intuitive proposal came on Monday this week, in the form of Michael Gove’s suggestion that Scotland adopt its own bespoke points-based system. Scotland, so the plan went, would be able to adjust the points required depending on its particular needs – including lowering the overall threshold, in order to increase immigration to Scotland.

This idea has been doing the rounds for several years, and advocated by many in the SNP and Lib Dems – but has been roundly rejected by the Home Office. Clearly, Theresa May is averse to any reform that might further undermine the net migration target by raising overall numbers of migrants. Arguably more seriously, separate regional points-based systems suffer from a problem of ‘retention’. Immigrants may be required to stay in the recruiting region for a certain period of time. But once that period has expired and they have accrued longer-term residency rights, it is problematic to deny them the possibility of moving on to another locale. This has been a problem with Quebec’s points-based scheme, which has seen a high proportion of its immigrants move on to other areas of Canada once they have the opportunity.

3. The third surprise from Leave campaigners comes in the form of today’s suggestion by Boris Johnson that a post-Brexit government introduce an amnesty for irregular migrants. The idea is that those who have been resident on an irregular basis for 12 years or more be entitled to regularise their status. The number standing to benefit from such an initiative is likely to be considerable. Though it is notoriously difficult to estimate the scale of the undocumented population, estimates in 2005 and 2007 put the total at around 600,000.

Again, this proposal can be interpreted as a progressive move, and one that is presumably designed to assuage criticisms that the Leave campaign is anti-immigrant. Amnesties for those without legal status are a humane and effective way of dealing with irregular migration. But as many southern European countries have found, regular, publicised amnesties can act as a draw to would-be immigrants. Arguably the best way of dealing with this is to ensure regularisation by stealth – granting amnesties to those who have built a life in the UK, but through less high profile programmes. So the trick is to ensure a route to regular status, but without overly publicising it.

But the main problem with this proposal is that combining high profile amnesties with a restriction of low-skilled immigration is a sure-fire path to wide-scale irregular migration. Look at the case of Italy. Years of restrictive immigration policies, combined with widespread demand for low-skilled labour, and regular amnesties for undocumented migrants, has contributed to a huge irregular population. There are strong incentives to non-EU nationals to enter Italy on an irregular basis or overstay their visa, find work on the informal labour market in Italy’s prosperous northern regions, and then wait for an opportunity to regularise their status. Giuseppe Sciortino has written eloquently on the topic.

As things stand, EU migration to the UK may not be ‘controlled’ as perfectly as many might like. But it is far more likely to be on the books, with employees paying taxes and subject to the same rights and conditions as British workers. Importantly, it is also flexible, allowing workers to move to where the jobs are, and to come and go as job opportunities evolve. An attempt to cut off this supply and recruit only high-skilled labour via a points system is likely to encourage increased irregular migration. Couple that with high profile amnesties, and a potential ‘back door’ into the UK via the Republic of Ireland and a more generous Scottish points system, and there you have it: a perfect recipe for Italian-style chronic and large-scale irregular migration.


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Why Brexit won’t reduce immigration to the UK

Migration has become one of the most prominent issues in the debate on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), indeed some commentators
are suggesting it might determine the outcome of the upcoming Referendum. However, the arguments about how Brexit might influence immigration to the UK are complex, the
debate is often confused, and many of the claims deserve some scrutiny. In this brief, I review the various arguments being put forward in the debate, and consider how remaining or leaving the EU might affect immigration to the UK.

1  Will Brexit exempt the UK from EU provisions on free movement?

One of the main claims of the ‘leave’ campaign is that by leaving the EU, the UK would
be able to withdraw from provisions on the free movement of workers. However, there are reasons to question whether the UK would be able to withdraw from EU freemovement provisions while retaining full access to the Common Market. Free movement of workers is considered to be a corollary of the other ‘freedoms’: free movement of goods, and free movement of services. The mobility of EU nationals within the Single Market is seen
as a fundamental principle of the EU. Thus it is highly unlikely that the UK would be able to retain full access to the Single Market while rejecting EU rules on the free movement ofworkers. Other countries benefiting from free trade in goods and services have been obliged to accept EU rules on the freemovement of persons, including members of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland. When Switzerland voted in a referendum in 2014 to limit mass migration, including through putting a cap on immigration from the EU, this triggered a diplomatic crisis with the EU. The EU took retaliatory measures, including withdrawing research funding from Swiss institutions. The crisis remains unresolved. The unfeasibility of the UK combining full Single Market participation with rights to limit the free movement of workers appears to be one of the reasons why the Leave camp has now withdrawn its claims that the UK would or should remain part of the Single Market.
2 Would exemption from free movement provisions enable the UK to reduce immigration?

If a UK government were no longer committed to free movement provisions, in could in principle set a cap on immigration of EU nationals. The question becomes that of whether such a cap could realistically be implemented, and how it would affect non-EU immigration.

The first point to note is that over half of current immigration (and over half of net migration) to the UK is composed on non-EU nationals. Since 2010, the Home Office has introduced a range of measures attempting to reduce non-EU immigration. However, it has proved extremely difficult – even for a Government vocally committed to reducing net migration – to bring down the level of non-EU immigration.

Would a post-Brexit government have an easier time in limiting EU immigration? One argument why this may be so is that many EU migrants arrive in the UK as job seekers, rather than coming to a specific job, and many take-up relatively low-skilled jobs that UK nationals might be able to fill. In other words, the perception is that EU immigrants are competing with UK nationals for jobs. However, recent research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that British employers often turn to EU nationals because British workers are put off by low pay, seasonal or shift work, and hard-to-reach locations. This is also backed up by the Office for National Statistics, which suggest that 58% of EU nationals coming to the UK to work already have a job offer before they get here.

This begs the question of what effect a ban on EU immigration might have on the economy. If EU nationals are filling somany jobs, then a significant restriction of immigration would create serious labour shortages, with damaging effects for those sectors most reliant on foreign labour: process plant occupations, cleaning, food preparation and hospitality, and health. Rather than leading to a reduction in immigration, it may simply create acute shortages, which would then need to be filled by either EU or non-EU nationals.

Indeed, it is difficult to see how a UK government could substantially limit EU immigration without incurring significant economic costs, or simply necessitating  increased levels of non-EU immigration. Governments have been unable to limit non-EU immigration; and there is little suggest that EU immigration is more expendable to the UK economy. Indeed, labour market policies aimed at improving the wages and conditions of lower skilled jobs – and, crucially, policies to enforce such measures – are likely to have a greater influence on labour migration than leaving the EU.

3 Could a ban on access to welfare reduce EU immigration?

If we accept that leaving the EU would not significantly enhance the UK’s ability to reduce EU immigration, are there other ways of limiting inflows? David Cameron has sought to respond to concerns about EU immigration by reducing access to welfare. His argument,  is that limiting welfare benefits for EU migrants will help to reduce EU immigration. Indeed, Prime Minister Cameronwas able to negotiate a deal to limit welfare access at the European Council meeting in February 2016. EU member states agreed that a country could impose an ‘emergency break’ on EU immigrants accessing in-work credits in their first four years. The agreement also permits member states to index exported child benefit to the rates of the country of residence.

However, as many commentators have pointed out, the proposed measures are likely to have a limited effect. The ‘emergency brake’ would only be in place for a maximum of seven years. And it can only limit access to in-work tax benefits for newly arriving EU
immigrants, for the first four years. Moreover, the text of the deal makes clear that over this four year period, benefits should be incrementally phased in, as immigrants become more integrated into the labour market.

But more importantly, it is unlikely that a large number of EU immigrants would be affected by the provisions. As the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found, only an estimated one in ten EU migrants claim some form of in-work tax credits, and that is typically a few years into their stay, when they settle down and have children. The Guardian has estimated that only 84,000 households would have been affected by the emergency brake had it been introduced 4 years ago. Thus there is little evidence that
these reductions would lead to a substantial change in EU immigration.

4 Will Brexit enhance UK border control?

Pro-leave campaigners have also suggested that the UK would regain sovereignty in other areas of immigration policy. For example, it is often claimed that the UK would be able to implement more robust border control, becoming more effective in stopping irregular flows from Calais, or inflows of suspected terrorists. It is important to note, however, that the UK is not a member of Schengen, and so currently has full control of its borders. EU nationals do not require visas, and in some ports of entry may benefit from expedited queues at passport control. But the UK is already fully entitled to check the passports of
every national entering its territory.

Another argument is that the UK would be exempt from a series of EU directives on immigration and asylum. Here it’s important to note that the UK has no obligation to participate in any common measures on immigration and asylum: the Government has already negotiated a special deal whereby it can choose unilaterally whether to opt
in to legislation on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, pro-EU campaigners have suggested that the UK might lose its influence over other important aspects of European immigration policy.

The UK has voluntarily opted in to a number of instruments that are considered to be in the national interest, such as the Dublin Convention for determining which member state is responsible for assessing asylum applications, and the EURODAC database of asylum applicants. The Labour Government opted into EU directives on minimum standards for asylum procedures and reception of asylumseekers, as well as the definition of who qualifies for asylum. The UK has also actively participated in measures to combat irregular migration, including directives on carrier and employer sanctions, anti-trafficking measures, readmission agreements with non-EU countries, and it has participated in joint naval patrols in the Mediterranean. These forms of cooperation are seen as being in the national interest, and it is uncertain on what terms the UK might participate in such initiatives outside of the EU.

Furthermore, pro-remain proponents suggests that should the UK restrict EU immigration, UK nationals living in other EU countries might face retaliatory
measures. If the UK puts a quota on EU immigration to the UK, British pensioners retiring to Southern Spain, or UK engineers relocating to Germany, are likely to suffer similarly restrictive measures.


The claim that leaving the EU would allow the UK to enjoy greater sovereignty over immigration and border control deserves critical scrutiny. Indeed, the evidence suggests that a focus on EU membership as the key to resolving the immigration problems is misplaced, for several reasons.
• The UK is unlikely to secure a deal that combines full access to the common market with an exemption to rules on freemovement.
• Even if the UK could negotiate such a deal, the demand for foreign labour is likely to persist, placing pressure on any government to ensure an adequate inflow of labour immigration. The current Government’s difficulty in reducing even non-EU
immigration demonstrates how difficult it is for pro-business administrations to reduce
economically beneficial forms of immigration.
• The national living wage – and, importantly, its enforcement –may have a much more
significant impact on EU immigration than the proposed reduction in welfare payments,
or even than a putative withdrawal from EU mobility provisions.

What this implies is that the answer to current concerns about EU immigration is not to limit immigration, or to limit access to welfare benefits. We need to understand the reasons why the UK labour market acts as a draw to EU immigrants. And – if this is seen as a problem– it will be necessary to find ways to better match the supply of (resident
UK) labour, and labour market demand.

As a final thought, it is quite likely that levels of EU immigration will in any case decline over the coming decade. As we saw, the highest flows are from southern European countries affected by the financial crisis. These flows are likely to recede as their
economies pick up. Polish immigration is already on the decline, and Romanian and Bulgarian immigration remains relatively modest. This implies that the focus of the debate on immigration will in the coming years shift to the question of non-EU immigration. Demand for foreign labour is likely to remain high, but concerns about EU free movement provisions as a source of unwanted immigration are likely to recede.

This blog is an extract from my new briefing paper, published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. For the full text, please see the RSE website.


Posted in Brexit, Immigration | 2 Comments

Implementing Targets in UK Government: A Multiple Streams Approach

It has long been observed that policies can get lost in implementation. The best intended legislation or programme adopted by central government can get reinterpreted, distorted or even subverted when applied at local level, or across different areas of government. This was certainly the case with the British Labour government’s system of targets rolled out in the 2000s. Number 10 and the Treasury (the ‘core executive’) adopted a series of quantified performance targets designed to improve public services. And the government even monitored how far they were being achieved through rigorous reporting arrangements. But the targets were appropriated and applied in quite different ways across departments. What factors shaped how different parts of government implemented targets?

In our recent Policy & Politics article: Policies, politics and organisational problems: multiple streams and the implementation of targets in UK government, we develop John Kingdon’s idea of ‘multiple streams’ to try to understand differential implementation across sectors. The multiple streams approach suggests that policies are adopted where three elements converge: a policy, a problem, and amenable political conditions. We suggest this is a useful approach for understanding implementation, too. However, we suggest adjusting the approach in two ways. First, we focus on implementation in the departments or ministries responsible for implementing policy. So we adopt the perspective of organisations in the public administration, rather than focusing on (party) political dynamics. Second, we suggest that two factors are most important in shaping implementation: the strength of the core executive’s commitment to the policy; and the policy’s ‘match’ with organisational problems. In other words, does the proposed policy seem useful or appropriate to the organisation as a way of addressing what it perceives to be the challenges facing it?

We suggest that different combinations of political commitment and match with organisational problems yield four possible modes of implementation. First, where there is strong central commitment and the proposed policy matches organisational problems, then we can expect effective implementation. However, where the policy doesn’t appear to fit with the organisation’s perception of policy problems, then we can expect either weak implementation (if central government is not that committed either). Or, if the core executive is strongly committed to the policy but the organisation isn’t, then the organisation may engage in ‘decoupling’: complying with the policy in its rhetoric and formal structures, but in practice failing to carry out the changes required to implement it. A fourth possibility is that the core executive is not strongly committed to the policy, but the organisation is – in this case, we can expect ‘bottom-up’ implementation, driven by the organisation.

Politics Stream

Strong Weak
Problem fit Strong Consensual implementation Bottom-up implementation


  Weak Coercive implementation/ decoupling



We examine this model by looking at the implementation of targets in carbon emissions, defence procurement and asylum. Our analysis draws on 54 interviews carried out with officials, special advisors and ministers. We find support for our model. In the case of asylum, initial attempts by the Home Office to decouple rhetoric and practice were constrained, as the core executive became strongly committed to overseeing the implementation of targets. In the case of defence procurement, the Ministry of Defence’s lack of enthusiasm – and a core executive keen to implement targets but reluctant to be too intrusive – resulted in a combination of decoupling and ineffective implementation. Finally, in the case of emissions targets, the Department for Climate Change (and its predecessor Defra) was keen to embrace the targets to enhance its organisational clout, and attract resources. However, weak political interest by the core executive meant that implementation of the target was largely ‘bottom-up’.

One of our key findings is that organisations can switch between modes of implementation, as core executive commitment changes over time, and as new organisational problems emerge. Our analysis also reinforces how difficult it is for core executives to steer implementation. Even where they set clear, specific targets and monitor them rigorously, there is huge scope for organisations to decouple formal compliance from informal deviation. As the asylum case shows, the core executive may need to resort to quite resource-intensive, intrusive – and damaging – forms of intervention to achieve its goals. In the case of the Home Office, one has to ask if this was a price worth paying.

Christina Boswell and Eugenia Rodrigues

A longer version of this blog was published in Discover Society on 4 May 2016

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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.

Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Targets | Leave a comment

The deal on EU immigration and welfare is symbolic – but Brexit won’t solve the ‘problem’ of EU immigration either

A consensus seems to be emerging that the deal on welfare access for EU migrants struck in Brussels last week is largely symbolic. It is unlikely to have a significant effect on the mobility decisions of potential migrants; nor does it look like it will produce any substantial savings.

It is important to be absolutely clear about why it will not have a big impact. Part of the story is that the deal doesn’t actually promise that much. The famous ‘emergency brake’ would only be in place for a maximum of 7 years. And it can only limit access to in-work tax benefits for newly arriving EU immigrants, for the first four years. Moreover, the text of the deal makes clear that over this four year period, benefits should be incrementally phased in, as immigrants become more integrated into the labour market.

But more importantly, the whole premise of the deal is misguided. EU migrants are not a fiscal burden – the vast majority come to the UK to work, are typically young and often (at least initially) without dependants, and make a net contribution to the public purse. Only an estimated 1 in 10 EU migrants claim some form of in-work tax credits, and that is typically a few years into their stay, when they settle down and have children. While the DWP has been very reticent about releasing figures, the Guardian has estimated that only 84,000 households would have been affected by the emergency brake had it been introduced 4 years ago.

Finally, for those households that are effected, the ban may induce unintended effects. For example, households most likely to receive such credits are families with children, where only one parent works. In cases of two-parent households, one obvious response would be for the second parent to start seeking work. As for the plans to index child benefits for children living in countries of origin, parents may actually decide to move their children to live with them in the UK.

However, the problem with this line of argument is that it can be deployed by Euro-sceptics to underpin their arguments for Brexit. Indeed, Euro-sceptic Tories and UKIP have been keen to press home that the Brussels package is unlikely to have much impact on immigration. And this is seen as a vindication of their claims that the UK can only limit EU immigrant by leaving the EU. But here lies one of the biggest misunderstandings of the debate. No country has been able successfully to access the EU’s common market without accepting provisions on the free movement of workers.

European Economic Area countries such as Norway, who are out of the EU but benefit from access to the free market, have signed up to provisions on free movement – indeed, Norway is part of the Schengen area (which the UK is not). Switzerland attempted to withdraw from EU free movement arrangements following a referendum in 2014. But this has sparked a huge row with the EU, and a ban from EU research funding. The dispute is not yet resolved. (Michael Keating discusses some of these issues here.)

The other option, then, is to negotiate more limited access to the common market. This would work fine for free movement of goods (which are largely covered by WTO agreements anyway), but would almost certainly fail to secure the current favourable deal on financial services.

Even assuming the UK were able to negotiate this imaginary deal, what would the consequences be of limiting EU immigration? Steve Peers has written about the possible implications for UK nationals abroad. Here I will focus on the question of whether such a withdrawal from EU mobility provisions would limit immigration.

The first point to note is that EU immigrants only account for just under half of current immigration from overseas. Even if they were completely removed from the equation, we would still be seeing net migration of well over 100,000 per year. I suspect that current levels of EU immigration will also decline over the coming years. Immigration from the A-8 countries – the Central and East European states that joined the EU in 20014 (including Poland) – is already in decline. Most current EU immigration is from the ‘older’ EU member states, notably southern European countries affected by the economic crisis. And that is likely to fall, as their economies eventually pick up.

The second point is that – as the latest ONS figures show – 58% of labour migrants from the EU already have a job set up on arrival. So the question is, what would happen if this flow of workers stopped? One intuitive answer is that British nationals would take the jobs. But that overlooks the problem of labour market ‘mismatch’. Even in contexts of high unemployment, the available workforce does not always ‘match’ job vacancies. This may be because they don’t have the required skills; because they are living in another part of the country and are unable or unwilling to relocate; or because the salary or work conditions are not sufficiently attractive. All of these factors can mean that employers are dependent on foreign workers to fill vacancies. I would conjecture that many of the jobs EU nationals are currently occupying have these features. They are jobs that UK nationals are unable or unwilling to do. And if that is the case, then stopping EU immigration could deprive UK business of much-needed labour.

One way of addressing labour market mismatch is to make jobs more attractive to current UK residents. And indeed, the new National Living Wage, which comes into force in April this year, is a good (if modest) start. Higher salaries could encourage UK nationals to take up jobs that they would not otherwise have considered.

Yet the catch here is that the Living Wage only applies to workers of 25 years or over. For under 25s, lower minimum wage provisions apply. So this might encourage businesses to circumvent the rules by employing younger workers – and newly arriving EU immigrants tend to be in their early 20s. Moreover, where businesses feel they cannot afford these extra costs, then they may try to circumvent the rules and employ workers on an irregular basis – and this would most likely mean employing foreign nationals. So policy-makers should look carefully at the age thresholds. And, crucially, the rules will need to be rigorously enforced in order to avoid immigrant workers being recruited to undercut the higher rates of pay.

In fact, the national living wage – and, importantly, its enforcement – may have a much more significant impact on EU immigration than the proposed reduction in welfare payments, or even than a putative withdrawal from EU mobility provisions. And this brings us full circle back to the original point. The answer to current concerns about EU immigration is not to limit immigration, or to limit access to welfare benefits. We need to understand the reasons why the UK labour market acts as a draw to EU immigrants. And – if this is seen to be a problem – it will be necessary to  find ways to better match the supply of (resident UK) labour, and labour market demand. This should be the real debate on EU immigration.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Symbolic politics | 3 Comments

Time for a frank debate on immigration

Here’s a link to an op ed on UK immigration policy, published in the Herald last month. It followed an event we hosted at Edinburgh University on the net migration target, analysing new data on UK net migration.

The article and the event were part of a wider research project on the Politics of Monitoring, sponsored by ESRC.





Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Research & Policy | 2 Comments

The net migration target may have failed, but it has shifted the way we debate immigration

Figures released by the ONS today suggest that net migration to the UK stands at an all time high, at 336,000. The UK government’s pledge to reduce net migration ‘from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands’ seems further than ever from being achieved.

So why hasn’t the government killed off this compromising target? One obvious answer is the political risk of abandoning a target once it has been set. Cameron and Theresa May are fully aware that the target is in many ways a liability. But they have calculated that dropping the target at this stage will send out an even more damaging political message: that their commitment to reducing immigration has been diluted.

But while the target may have been a failure, it has had significant effects on the way we talk about immigration. By setting a single, high-profile, quantitative target, the government has irreversibly shifted how we define and assess policy on immigration.

In our ESRC project on the Politics of Monitoring, we distinguish two main effects of this type of quantitative performance measurement. The first concerns how we categorise and count immigrants. The exercise of counting net migration implies suppressing important distinctions between groups – whether students, intra-company transferees and European Economic Area nationals, family migrants or refugees – and counting them as equivalent units. This glosses over important differences in the reasons behind migration, for example whether it is economic, family-related, linked to study, or fleeing persecution. And it overlooks the varied impacts of immigrants on the UK economy and society, as well as differences across regions of the UK.

Importantly, this re-classification of which immigrants ‘count’ has shifted political attention, bringing previously unproblematic – or even unobserved – groups of immigrants into the political spotlight. Few people were anxious about foreign students or high-skilled labour migrants before the target was introduced. Now they are all part of a problem to be reduced. What’s more, these new classifications are now embedded in the way statistics are produced and disseminated, and the way in which the public expects to appraise the government and hold it to account.

The second effect concerns the role of measurement. It has now become normal to frame immigration issues through using statistics, and especially in terms of overall flows. The use of numbers provides a particularly clear and authoritative way of expressing goals, one that appears more precise and objective than qualitative descriptions. It promises an especially rigorous way of holding government to account.

Opposition parties have played into this, frequently pegging their critique on the government’s failure to meet its own target. This constant invocation of the target – even by its detractors – only reinforces the idea that such targets are valid and appropriate ways of framing policy. Meanwhile, Labour has struggled to articulate a clear and compelling message on immigration, partly because of its (justifiable) refusal to adopt a clear and simply target. The fact of the matter is, targets work very well as political messages.

We may dislike targets. We may find them simplifying, distorting and in many cases unrealistic. But once policies are framed in terms of precise quantitative goals, it is very difficult to undo these effects. In UK immigration debates, it has become difficult to resist assessing policy in terms of overall inflows of migrants, or articulating goals in terms of numbers. The net migration target may have failed, but it has profoundly influenced the way we deliberate on immigration policy.


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How the refugee crisis disrupted the European project of outsourcing – and technocratising – refugee protection

In the midst of the heady events of August and September 2015, as Germany and Austria welcomed their doors to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, it was tempting to imagine that we were witnessing a Damascene moment in refugee policy. After a quarter of a century of restrictive EU policy, a number of European governments appeared to be eschewing ‘fortress Europe’ and ushering in more humane approaches. Faced with the prospect of a humanitarian crisis at their borders, and vocal public support for welcoming refugees, it seemed that European asylum policies might be undergoing a radical shift.

That impulse was, perhaps predictably, short-lived. After a few weeks of experimenting with open borders, Germany and Austria have been duly reprimanded by the president of the European Council, opposition parties have started agitating against what they see as an irresponsible transgression, and policy has reverted to the default restrictive approach: negotiating with transit countries to outsource migration control, and measures to identify and finger-print refugees entering Italy and Greece. As for refugee protection, the onus is once more on reinforcing assistance in refugee camps surrounding Syria.

But what happened the past summer is hugely significant. Not because of the scale of the humanitarian problem that triggered the response. Those Syrian refugees who made it via the so-called ‘eastern route’ through Turkey, Greece, and Serbia or Croatia, were but a fraction of those displaced by conflict. There are 4 million refugees displaced from Syria, and millions more internally displaced within the country. Not to mention the estimated 60 million displaced globally. European countries only ever see a small proportion of the world’s dispossessed.

The significance of the crisis lies instead in what it exposed: three decades of attempts to detach Europe and its publics from the messy reality of forced displacement. This detachment is both physical and psychological. The physical detachment has been accomplished through the outsourcing of migration control and refugee protection to other regions. Visas, carrier sanctions and pre-frontier control rolled out since the 1980s mean that it is almost impossible for refugees to arrive on European territory. If they do manage, then readmission agreements, detention and ever more restrictive asylum processing and recognition criteria mean they have slim prospects of being allowed to stay. Meanwhile, a raft of agreements with source and transit countries – from conditional development aid, to ‘mobility partnerships’ and funding ‘reception in the region’ – elicit cooperation in keeping would-be migrants and refugees well away from Europe.

Perhaps even more powerful is the psychological detachment. Asylum policies have become increasingly technocratised: debate revolves almost exclusively around what tools should be adopted to reduce asylum numbers. Ethical debates around duties to refugees are relegated to church groups and NGOs – they are not topics for mainstream party politics. Nowhere is this more striking than in the UK, with its penchant for performance targets. From Tony Blair’s target of halving asylum applications in 2003, to the current government’s pledge to reduce net migration (including asylum) to the tens of thousands, UK governments have helped frame asylum as an abstract, quantifiable problem that needs to be reduced or eliminated. These sanitised, technical depictions of the problem are detached from context and the particular. They rely on anonymised data, rather than rich description.

Both of these modes of detachment imply a form of estrangement from the figure of the refugee or asylum seeker. The result has been that the issue has been sanitised – even dehumanised – in European public debate. The arrival of refugees over the summer, and especially the poignant images of particular families, and of individual children, destabilised this state of detachment. This was what was so striking about the events of the late summer. We caught a brief glimpse of these refugees as mothers, fathers, friends, children. And we gained some insight into the anguish, frustrations and aspirations that drove them across Europe. Refugees have always been there, we have just avoided seeing them.

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Our sterile quantitative debate on immigration needs to be humanised through stories and images

The body of a small boy, 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. This was the tragic image that captured mass media attention, and galvanised responses from a number of EU leaders including David Cameron.

Posted in Immigration, Targets | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Plans to Evict ‘Illegal’ Immigrants: A Lesson in Symbolic Politics

This week the government announced plans to facilitate the eviction of tenants illegally resident in the UK. As part of their drive to ‘create a hostile environment for illegal migrants’, the government will remove legal obstacles to evicting non-nationals who do not have legal residency status. They will also introduce penalties for landlords who fail to enforce the new provisions.

This measure doesn’t make sense on any practical level. First, those evicted are likely to end up homeless or in overcrowded accommodation. They will be vulnerable to exploitation by ruthless landlords operating outside the rules – indeed the measure is likely to lead to a growth in the irregular property letting market.

Second, as pilots of this scheme have already shown, landlords are likely to be more cautious about letting to non-nationals, or even British nationals who cannot produce the relevant documentation. Certain ethnic minority groups already face discrimination in accessing accommodation, and this measure can only make matters worse.

Thirdly, it’s far from clear how evicting people from their property will facilitate the ‘removal’ of those who’ve overstayed their legal residency. One group targeted by the new measure is asylum applicants whose cases have been rejected. We know how challenging it has been for consecutive governments to remove people in this situation. Labour had a series of targets for removal of rejected asylum-seekers, which they rarely met. The current government has hardly done better. So why would the Home Office want to make it more difficult to keep track of this group by evicting them from known addresses?

Fourthly, it’s simply not credible that this provision will deter those who are seeking to reside and work in the UK without legal status. There will be ways of finding accommodation through friends and informal networks – or living rough. Access to the legal property market is likely to be pretty low down on the list of considerations for those fleeing persecution or poverty and seeking a better life in the UK.

But of course, the measure is not about practical considerations. It’s not seriously designed to reduce the incentives of potential migrants to move to the UK, or to encourage the return of those already resident.  It’s far more all about signaling to target voters that the government is tough on immigration; that it is taking action to tackle illegal entry and stay, especially given its problems grappling with problems at Calais.

In an earlier blog I wrote about the risks of this form of symbolic politics. Cosmetic adjustments can easily catch governments out, once it becomes clear that they are not having any substantive effect. This has been the fate of the net migration target, which the government has been unable to meet.

But governments are less likely to run this risk in the area of illegal immigration. By definition, illegal immigrants attempt to remain invisible to official structures. And while researchers have produced various methods for ‘guesstimating’ the size of the illegally resident population, it is impossible to produce accurate figures. This implies that the impact of government measures to control and limit irregular migration will be difficult to gauge. The only things that can be reliably measured are incidents captured by official data, such as the number of evictions,  or prosecutions of landlords. But we will never know whether the measure has had an impact on the size of the illegal population in Britain, let alone whether it has altered the incentives of would-be migrants. These features make the initiative ideal as an instance of symbolic politics: rhetorically stringent; while in practice, ineffectual or possibly counter-productive.

Posted in Immigration, Symbolic politics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Immigration, Targets, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Borgenisation of UK Politics: good news for immigrants?

Policy experts have devoted massive attention to analysing the effect of UKIP on immigration policy. But there’s been very little reflection on how other ‘smaller’ parties might affect immigration policy. Based on the recent pre-election leaders’ debates in the UK and Scotland, it’s time to address this imbalance. By offering a platform to the leaders of all 7 parties, the debates provided an opportunity for smaller parties with more progressive immigration policies – the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru – to showcase their party positions on immigration. The outcome was music to the ears of those advocating more liberal policy. Here were three voices articulating a more progressive vision, and prepared to confront UKIP views head on. By contrast, the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems came across as reticent or non-committal.

One reason for this is that these smaller parties are targeting niche groups in the electorate, and can afford to dispense with the more anti-immigrant segments of the electorate – indeed in the case of the Green Party, they hope to broaden their support by positioning themselves as pro-immigration. This contrasts with the strategies of the two main parties, which are still effectively ‘catch-all’ groupings, aiming to attract supporters from across the ideological and territorial spectrum, including those who are concerned about immigration. Labour also feels shackled by perceptions of its poor record in controlling immigration before 2000. And the Lib Dems are compromised by their failure to mitigate the restrictive rhetoric and policies of their coalition partners over the past 5 years.

So does this imply that the emergence of a greater number of smaller parties, representing more niche sections of the electorate, will usher in a more enlightened debate on immigration? Is the Borgenisation of UK politics a good think for immigrants? Perhaps. However, I’d suggest two reasons for caution.

First, the strength of this progressive voice wasn’t just a question of numbers, i.e. the inclusion of 3 leaders with more liberal stances. The format of the event – a hustings-style public meeting, with an audience selected to represent the electorate – lent itself to a more progressive vibe. It staged a very culturally entrenched ritual of the UK democratic process. Implicit in this format is the idea of inclusivity, fairness, an equal right to be heard – perhaps even Habermas’s “ideal speech situation”. In such formats, speakers who articulate ethical positions, who express a commitment to norms of fairness, rights, tolerance, or liberty, often get an especially good reception. They capture the inclusive, democratic mood. In such settings, progressive views on immigration are far more likely to enlist vocal support. But let’s not get too carried away. These formats are far removed from the mode of debate characterising most political discussion between friends, families and colleagues. And it’s a far cry from what canvassers report they are hearing ‘on the doorstep’.

Second, this 7-way platform is far from typical of media coverage of party positions. While the debate gave each leader roughly equal airtime, even the BBC weights its coverage based on level of electorate support. And the print media of course have no such strictures, determining coverage based on their ideological affinities (which in the UK are mainly anti-immigration). So we can’t expect the progressive views of the three smaller parties to penetrate large sections of the popular media.

That said, I found it immensely refreshing, even exhilarating, to hear a robust defence of immigrants and calls for a more open and realistic approach to immigration. And I was reminded of how the public mood can turn against overly negative or restrictive views. Recall the reaction against Michael Howerd’s excessively anti-immigration position in the 2005 election. Public debates provide good forums for shoring up collective support for fairer and more humane positions. I think they bring out our better nature.

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The net migration target shows how difficult it is for liberal governments to restrict immigration

Scholars have long identified a so-called ‘liberal constraint’ on immigration policy. The argument goes as follow. Public opinion tends to favour restrictive policies, and politicians know they stand to lose votes by permitting large-scale immigration. Yet a number of ‘liberal constraints’ kick in, which limit how restrictive they can really be. International human rights and refugee law – often codified in national constitutions and legislation – obliges them to admit people for humanitarian reasons. For EU or EEA countries, treaty obligations mean they have to allow the nationals of member states access to their labour markets. Concerns about inter-ethnic or ‘race’ relations often pull them back from blatantly discriminatory measures that might stoke domestic tensions. And clearly, liberal states have a strong interest in securing foreign labour to plug gaps in labour supply, or to bring in skills and experience that enhance productivity. Put all these together, and it becomes much, much harder to deliver promises to reduce immigration.

Now the liberal constraint hasn’t stopped governments from employing highly restrictive rhetoric on immigration. Indeed, a classic way of reconciling hostile public opinion with liberal constraints is to separate rhetoric from practice: to preach restriction, while covertly tolerating or encouraging immigration. Such covert encouragement can involve introducing low profile administrative arrangements for entry of certain groups, e.g. through intra-company transfers, or seasonal worker schemes, or posted workers. Or it can involve tolerating substantial numbers of undocumented foreign workers who are periodically ‘regularised’ through amnesties. Most European governments have tried one or more of these strategies.

But this decoupling of rhetoric and practice is less easy when you have a migration target. A quantified target obviously means the level of migration – or at least regular migration – is closely measured and scrutinised by your critics.

So this the position the Conservative Party now finds itself in. Desperately keen to meet public demands for restriction; but constrained in doing so by the liberal constraint. There’s only so far it can clamp down on asylum and family migration, and only so far it wants to restrict high-skilled and student migration. And of course, it can’t limit EEA mobility while it remains an EU member. What’s worse, it now has UKIP breathing down its neck, blissfully heedless of any liberal constraint, in true populist, opposition party style.

What can be done?

First, it’s worth stressing that the last Labour government was in exactly the same position towards the end of its administration. After Labour’s initial period of liberalising migration policy in 2002-4, in the latter half of the 2000s the Home Office attempted to limit labour migration in exactly the same way as the Tories have done: closing non-EEA low-skilled routes; cracking down on abuse of the student route; and limiting non-EEA labour migration to a high-skilled categories. If we take away the Tories’ net migration target – which we know now is largely symbolic – the two main UK parties have very little standing between them on immigration policy.

Second, it should be clear by now that neither party would be able to deliver policies that are more restrictive than those currently pursued by Theresa May. Because of the liberal constraint, any responsible, liberal, business-friendly party will be hard pressed to find ways of further limiting legal immigration. (Short of leaving the EU, that is.) This fact has been blatantly exposed now, thanks to the net migration target: the target has driven home the impossibility of any mainstream party pursuing a more draconian approach.

So rather than being a sitting duck to UKIP, why not open up a more honest debate about immigration? Why don’t the main political parties – Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, perhaps the SNP too – set up a cross-party commission to thoroughly explore and debate immigration? The Germans did it in 2001, with their influential Immigration Commission, chaired by the moderate CDU politician Rita Suessmuth. The Commission brought together figures from across the political spectrum, trade union and employers, immigrant and religious groups, to deliberate various aspects of immigration: the economic arguments for different kinds of immigration; its social and cultural impacts; challenges of integration and multi-culturalism; and the human rights and humanitarian norms and considerations underpinning asylum and family migration. It was a painful and often fraught process. But the Germans appear have a much more healthy public debate on immigration now, and a more sensible and realistic discussion between the main political parties. If only we could do something similar here.

The net migration target is widely reviled. But maybe its failure has served a useful function: exposing the fact that no mainstream party – no matter how resolved – can or should radically reduce immigration. Now we’ve realised that, the next step has to be to open up a discussion on how we try to manage immigration in a way that balances liberal values and goals with public concerns about its impacts.

Posted in Immigration, Symbolic politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Targets, Quantification and Moral Deliberation

Much has been written about the ways in which quantified targets and performance indicators distort and compress the social dynamics they seek to represent. And scholars of science and technology studies have convincingly shown how such representations are not just descriptive but also performative, shaping our beliefs and norms about policy problems and appropriate responses.

But less has been said about how such compressions affect deliberation on questions of moral duties. How do the sorts of compression and simplification implied by quantification affect how we reason and debate questions of distributive justice, rights, or duties? This is not simply an academic question. The use of quantified indicators and targets is becoming mainstream in a number of policy areas which touch on issues of distributive justice. Such instruments are widely used to compare and assess trends on global poverty, human rights, development, and democratisation. In the area of immigration, national policies are increasingly compared and benchmarked through ‘indexes’, and the UK has been at the forefront of rolling out targets to codify policy goals in immigration and asylum. So how do these forms of quantification affect how we think about moral duties, and especially duties to non-nationals?

Predominant liberal theories of justice and rights suggest that moral reasoning involves abstracting from particular, personal and emotive considerations, and adopting an impartial perspective. On this account, moral duty is revealed – and motivated – by rational deliberation. That would imply that quantification might abet such processes of reasoning, by providing clear, comparable data stripped of the sort of emotional and partial baggage that could bias deliberation. This echoes more optimistic ideas of quantification as having an equalising, or ‘flattening’ effect on questions of distributive justice, abstracting from morally arbitrary characteristics and counting each person equally.

Yet there is another view of moral deliberation and motivation, which sees it as grounded in affect, rather than reason: we are moved to recognise and respond to moral imperatives through our ability to emphathise, to be affected by the plight of others. This way of thinking about morality has its roots in Scottish Enlightenment thought (notably David Hume and Adam Smith) and has been developed in feminist and psycho-analytic thought. It is also supported by cognitive psychology experiments on the role of affect in motivating ‘prosocial’ behaviour – indeed studies have shown that identifiable victims are much more likely to trigger altruistic responses than the provision of statistics (as charity campaigners have long realised!). Of course, empathy alone is not a reliable route for ensuring commitment to norms of universal rights or justice. We need to exercise rational deliberation to infer more general duties from particular cases, or to channel or find a ‘fit’ for our affective inclinations in prevailing social norms. (John Charvet offers a good account of the relationship between sentiment and reason. I explored some of these issues in my inaugural lecture).

Now if we accept that affect plays at least some role in motivating duties to others, then quantification can only undermine the types of affective response or deliberation required. Quantification effectively brackets off, or ‘black-boxes’, the resources needed to underpin affective responses. It compresses the type of rich description required to motivate moral duties.  We are required to abstract from those features of our fellow human beings which might trigger concern, distress, empathy, or sympathetic identification.

The upshot is that quantified targets may have a far stronger performative role than generally acknowledged. By sterilising our representation of refugees, immigrants, victims of violence or poverty, they are suppressing the imaginative and affective resources we need to motivate moral duties.

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Why the data doesn’t work: anti-immigrant sentiment and the economic impacts of migration

When UCL researchers released their latest findings on the fiscal impact of immigration a fortnight ago, they were portrayed in the media as somehow missing the point. It seems that data on the economic benefits of immigration can’t make a dent in current political debates about the subject. So why are such arguments so ineffectual in shifting opinion?

One answer lies in the inadequacy of abstract data. Apparently people don’t trust numbers – that’s “just facts”, as someone put it at panel discussion I recently attended on immigration. Anecdotes and second-hand stories about welfare abuse appear to be more compelling and credible than UCL or NIESR reports. The (admittedly infrequent) conversations I have with people who express strongly anti-immigrant views certainly suggest that information is largely drawn from second hand stories and the experiences of others – family members or friends, doubtless reinforced by right-wing media and political rhetoric.

A second answer is that the marginalisation of “expert” analysis is caused by a more general decline of trust in leaders, elites, or experts. This has been a frequent theme in debates on immigration across Europe since the age of post-WWII immigration. The public refuses to trust a supposedly out of touch elite, which is defending immigration because of vested interests in securing a pool of low cost labour, or because of woolly human rights or liberal commitments. This tendency is of course part of a more general decline in deference for leaders, elites, politicians, and experts of all description. These statuses are no longer a badge of authority.

There’s not much that defenders or more progressive immigration policies can do to counter these two tendencies. But it’s the third explanation that needs a bit of unpacking. This is the claim that economic arguments simply miss the point. For example, UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s argument that even if the economics data is correct, it still doesn’t imply immigration is a good thing. Concerns about immigration are about social and cultural issues: impacts on on communities, social services, accommodation, or cultural diversity. Tim Bale and others have made similar points recently, to the effect that “it’s not the economy, stupid”.

We need to tread very carefully here. Firstly, most of the concerns being articulated about immigration aren’t stories about cultural difference. They’re about competition for scarce social and economic resources, people jumping the queue, not playing by the rules. In essence, what immigration scholars have called “welfare chauvinism”. They’re just as likely to be directed at white, European, Christian immigrants as at black, Muslim and Asian immigrants – the groups traditionally characterised in British discourse as racially or ethnically different. In that sense, much of the anxiety about immigration isn’t “racist” in the sense traditionally understood. It’s about social and economic insecurity, the decline in standards of living, a loss of control, anxieties which can easily be channeled into suspicion of those who don’t play by the rules, or who are less deserving. That’s why anti-immigrant sentiment seems so closely to mirror concerns about “welfare scroungers”, and why both forms of prejudice seem to surface in times of economic downturn.

Second, the claim that anti-immigrant sentiment is “cultural” also risks conflating symptoms and causes. It implies eliding concerns about cultural diversity with the notion that immigration has itself caused an erosion of social capital. Yes there has been a dramatic decline in social cohesion (if we must use that term), especially since the 1950s – or if we want to be picky, dating back to rapid urbanisation brought on by the industrial revolution. People no longer share strong collective identities based on class, religion or locale; extended family and neighbourhood networks don’t play the same core social function they used to; people have become more individualistic, acquisitive, and life goals revolve around the individual or the nuclear family. But that’s decidedly not a product of immigration.

So while it may be true to say that concerns don’t revolve around economic factors in the strict sense, it’s misleading to infer from this that anti-immigrant sentiment is essentially cultural. And it’s just plain wrong to suggest that it is generated by the corrosive impact of diversity on social capital. Instead, as many others have suggested before, worries about immigration frequently serve as a lightning rod for a range of other social and economic anxieties. And to that extent, churning out data about the fiscal benefits of immigration won’t cut much ice with UKIP voters. Especially when it emanates from a discredited political and intellectual elite.

Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Symbolic politics | 2 Comments