The UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research has just published a new report on immigration, “A fair deal on migration for the UK”. Given the recent toxicity of the British debate on migration, with politicians competing to pander to the xenophobic UKIP vote, it is in some ways refreshing to read a set of policy proposals that would be an improvement on the status quo. Having said that, the status quo is in big trouble, with the Coalition government having failed to reach its net migration target (the numbers are actually going the wrong way) and with open warfare breaking out between ministers. Given the current climate, however, this probably marks the limit of what is acceptable to the Labour Party front bench (who have notably failed to oppose the current Immigration Bill), so it represents a marker of sorts, albeit that it is a strange kind of thing to be masquerading as a progressive approach.
The report is structured around the need to respond to the current “crude restrictionist” approach to immigration and positions itself by rejecting other views which it characterizes as “failed responses” (pp. 9-10). Leaving aside the “super pragmatist” approach which is actually remarkably close to their own, these are the “super-rationalist” and the “migrants rights activist” approaches, the first of which consists of telling the public clearly what the current social scientific research says and the second sticking up for a vulnerable group on grounds of justice. Since both of these groups have strong grounds for doing what they are doing—telling the truth and fighting injustice, respectively—it seems rather tendentious and self-serving to represent them as being simply failed attempts to do what the IPPR is trying to do, namely, influence senior politicians.
The central organizing idea of the report is around “framing” (section 3): the idea that if policies are presented to the public in the right kind of way, then there is more space for the the kind of “progressive” policy the IPPR supports. Centrally, this involves an attempt to shift the discourse away from the “super rationalist” territory of cost and benefit and onto talk about “fairness”. There’s something rather cynical about this. “Fairness” isn’t valued as such, but is instrumentalized as a way to get public acceptance of a more rational policy. Where “fairness” is actually given a content in the report it takes the form of the mantra (echoing rhetoric shared by Tories and Labour alike) of “work hard, make a contribution and play by the rules”. So much the worse for those of us who actually care about fairness and justice (but then we have a “failed response”).
- The main focus of policy is on narrowly economic contribution (sections 4.1-8), with particular emphasis on (horrible phrase) “high-value individuals”. There is no scope for any low skilled migration from out of the EU, nor is there any route for those whose contribution might not fit under the narrowly “economic” banner. Writers, artists, musicians: sorry, you aren’t welcome unless you are already rich and successful (Jimi Hendrix would have been turned away).
- On “welfare” and “welfare tourism” (4.18-22) the report concedes that there is little evidence of abuse but then proceeds anyway, telling us that a (presumably “super-rationalist”) attention to the facts “misses the point”: perception is what matters. They then endorse a levy on immigrant visitors to access public services, and a right of local government to discriminate in favour of those with a “local connection” when it comes to housing. (More generally, the emphasis on access to benefits being linked to contribution, and the need to strengthen this link, should sound alarm bells for the young native unemployed. The bell tolls for thee.)
- A particularly horrible feature of the current regime is the government’s rule that a person sponsoring a spouse should have an income of at least £18,600 (and more if their are children involved) with no allowance made for the partner’s earning potential in the UK. This has led to many families being separated. A court case which may get decided this week could change this. IPPR want to lower the threshold to match the “living wage”, to have different income requirements for settlement in cheaper places outside London, and to be more flexible about considering spousal income potential (4.11). A move in the right direction, though not going far enough in my opinion. On the negative side, however, IPPR want to block the “Surinder Singh route” which allows couples excluded from the UK by the income requirement to secure rights of residency by living and working in other EU member states. IPPR also want to require partners to speak English to a high standard before they are admitted to the UK. This can sound reasonable, but is arguably discriminatory, since it has harsher effects on some migrant communities than on others and may be unduly restrictive, since it excludes those with a commitment to learn and integrate who would pick up English more quickly and fluently if they were admitted.
- The IPPR are trapped by their emphasis on “playing by the rules” in their approach to “irregular migrants” (4.24), even those who have committed minor infractions. They allow for exceptions in “isolated cases” (with no clue given as to what these might be), but the basic attitude here is punitive and exclusionary, with some lip service paid to the way in which irregular status makes people vulnerable to crime and exploitation. There’s absolutely no consideration given to the fact that people may have lived in the country for many years, may have come a children, have strong social networks in the UK and none elsewhere. No: if you haven’t “played by the rules”, you’re out. This in the name of fairness.
- The discussion of asylum and refugee issues in the report is fairly perfunctory and largely focuses on saying the socially acceptable things about compliance with international obligations etc (4.23). There’s some discussion of the UK doing its fair share in the area (which would be an improvement). There’s no support given (or even discussion) of securing asylum seekers the right to work or the right of their children to higher education, and whilst people who are refused asylum but cannot be remove are mentioned, the fact of their destitution is not.
From my perspective, then, this is a deeply reactionary piece of work that panders to prejudice in the name of “realism” and uses talk of “fairness” as a Trojan horse for the progressive parts of its agenda. However, policies like this would be an improvement on the status quo: that’s how bad things are.