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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What might a post-Brexit immigration policy look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Brexit, Immigration | 1 Comment

Targets and Political Trust: Findings from our ESRC Project

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Illegal Immigrants

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

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

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

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

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



Posted in Immigration, Symbolic politics | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. A quota or cap on EU nationals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Brexit, Immigration | 2 Comments

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.


Posted in Brexit, Immigration | 1 Comment

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