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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Immigration, Targets, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Borgenisation of UK Politics: good news for immigrants?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can be done?

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

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

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

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

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

Targets, Quantification and Moral Deliberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Immigration, Targets | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government-sponsored policy research: getting the right balance between academic quality and ‘usefulness’

I was recently reviewing a (non-UK) government-sponsored research centre, and was struck by the tension between two goals. On the one hand, the government funders were keen to ensure the centre had solid academic credentials, and was carrying out work that was internationally recognised. On the other, it wanted the researchers to supply quite applied data and analysis to inform decision-making or debate, for example in the form of specific policy evaluations, briefings or even answering parliamentary questions.

These two types of function are, of course, very difficult to combine. Academic research worthy of its name requires a readiness to critically scrutinise concepts and assumptions employed by policy makers. It typically requires a far longer lead-in, and may focus on describing phenomena in a way that is not obviously relevant to policy, or developing generalisable claims that aren’t sufficiently specific to guide decision-making on particular policy problems. Often, rather than supplying neat answers, such research raises more questions than it answers. At a more practical level, in order to attract and retain good researchers, such government-sponsored research bodies need to be able to provide good possibilities for academic recognition through publication, tenure contracts and some degree of academic freedom. Good researchers won’t want to stick around long if they are confined to producing briefing papers and internal reports.

By contrast, officials in government departments often require quite different types of analysis. Sometimes they are looking for descriptive data or forecasts (and that can indeed tally with academic research); but often they require more specific evaluations; or quite detailed information on ‘good practice’ elsewhere; or very precise and delimited types of information about target populations. These types of data or analysis are often best provided through commissioned studies or reports, rather than a centre or unit attached to or based in the department.

My own research on inhouse research units in interior ministries suggested that these were largely there to signal the capacity of the department to make well-founded decisions. They were about meeting expectations about ‘evidence-based policymaking’ or ‘Competenz’, which implied the importance of demonstrating expertise. But most  officials saw the work of the research unit as largely irrelevant to the knowledge requirements of the operational parts of the organisation. I simplify somewhat, but this was certainly the pattern in Germany, the UK and the European Commission. Indeed, there was almost a trade-off between the conditions which would produce academic quality and those designed to ensure ‘usefulness’.

How do organisations cope with this trade-off? In the German Federal Office for Migration, managers prioritised academic reputation – the Competenz component – over usefulness. It was of paramount importance to senior management to signal the epistemic authority of the Federal Office. The UK Home Office appeared to fluctuate between the two models, with cycles of prioritising ‘blue skies’ research followed by frustrated attempts to ‘embed’ researchers within operations.

Unfortunately, the centre I was reviewing didn’t seem to be ticking either of these boxes. The research wasn’t of a high academic quality, partly because the researchers were so busy trying to second guess what might be useful to policymakers. But neither did officials show much interest in its work, ignoring repeated requests to help define research projects – presumably because they had limited need for academic research, or had other experts they preferred to turn to. In this case, the attempt to meet two quite different goals appeared to have ended up satisfying neither.

The lesson from all this seems to be that government funded research centres or units are not necessarily there primarily to address what the organisation identifies as research gaps. This type of ‘management information’ can be supplied through other means. Rather, such units are there to carry out more academic research, in order to lend authority to the organisation. At best, such research might have a longer-term enlightenment function, influencing how policy problems are framed. But that’s only likely to happen if you give the researchers sufficient academic freedom.

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

Paradoxes in the Use of Expertise in the Scottish Independence Debate

In a wonderfully perceptive article from 1999, German sociologist Peter Weingart identifies two paradoxes surrounding the use of science in political debate (and we can apply this to expertise more generally). First, late modern societies show an unprecedented dependence on expert knowledge to assess the risks and consequences of political action. Politics becomes ‘scientised’. But at the same time, science has also become politicised, thus undermining the authority of scientific claims in public debate. The second paradox is that rather than leading to the marginalisation of expertise in political debate, political actors continue to rely on it to bolster their claims. They may be sceptical about the validity of research findings; but nonetheless they are committed to the (often ritualistic) deployment of knowledge claims. Science is still considered necessary to underpin rational debate and decision-making.

The first paradox is certainly manifest in the debate on Scottish independence. From the outset, the media have been emphasising the importance of impartial, independent, expert advice to guide voting decisions. And political parties have been keen to substantiate their positions with evidence and expertise. Indeed, expert knowledge has been attributed far more weight than is the case in most political campaigns. Throughout much of the campaign, public debate has taken a largely technocratic form, with constant appeals to academics and experts to weigh in with assessments about different post-referendum scenarios. The apparent deference to experts can be partly explained by the high degree of uncertainty in predicting the outcome of a yes vote. And since most of the contention has revolved around what would happen if Scotland were independence, it’s not surprising that expertise is considered especially relevant. Standard elections revolve largely around assessments of the record of incumbents – claims which may be contested, but at least there are multiple and fairly reliable sources of knowlege for making such assessments. By contrast, when predicting the future, the rationalist impulse is to look to more abstract forms of modeling, or extrapolation from relevantly similar cases. And such forms of reasoning are of course the trademark of academics.

But as we reach the final stages of the campaign, such contributions are turning out to have limited traction or credibility. Lo and behold, the media finds that experts don’t agree in their assessments. The ‘science’ must be flawed. Rival protagonists are exposed to be partisan, or at least their arguments are being mobilised to substantiate partisan views. Either way, the science becomes politicised. Expertise become exposed as yet another weapon in the arsenal of politicians, and loses its authority.

The interesting feature of this debate, though, is that Weingart’s second paradox is not in evidence, or at least not in this final stage of the campaign. Rather than sustaining the ritual of technocratic contestation, the debate appears to have been increasingly stripped back to its raw, identity-driven essentials. And it begins finally to resemble an authentic debate about self-determination or unity.  Of course, rival claims about the economy, or health, or pensions are still being asserted, and may still influence voting. But what might be seen as the charade of technocratic decision-making has been exposed. Long live the visceral politics of identity and belonging?

Posted in Research & Policy, Scottish independence, Symbolic politics | 2 Comments