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.


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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