IPPR on immigration: cup half full or half empty ?

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2014

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”).

Specific policies:

  • 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.



Matt 03.06.14 at 2:09 pm

Very interesting, Chris. Thanks for the summery. There are lots of points that interest me but I’ll ask about one or two now. I’m interested for more of your thoughts on the sponsor income (what would, in the US, fall under a “likelihood to be a public charge” provision) in your 3rd bullet point. In a paper on family-based immigration from a few years ago, I defended the idea that some sort of “public charge” provision could be included for family-based immigration on reciprocity grounds. I don’t know what the right level is. In the US it’s very low- you have to be able to meet 125% of the federal poverty level for a family of the appropriate size. (I was able to do this when I sponsored my wife on my grad school stipend- $17K.) There are ways to meet the requirement if one can’t do it on his or her own income, though they are not as flexible as they should be. But, while the UK rule seems to me to be too high and too inflexible, the basic idea doesn’t seem wrong. Would you reject any sort of sponsor/public charge requirement for family immigration, despite reciprocity concerns, or do you find those completely unpersuasive?

On the writers/artists/musicians category, what sort of standard to you think would be better? I’m in favor of much more flexible temporary migration, so I suppose that, for the non-famous who would just like to practice their trade in a country for some time, that would be an option, but unless this is just abandoning all limits, I assume there must be some sort of standard for permanent migration. I’m somewhat hesitant to have government panels making independent judgments of potential artistic merit. (In the US, in the case of “persons of extraordinary ability”, there are semi-objective standards that are used.)

Anyway, lots to think of here. I’d be interested for your thoughts on these topics, if you have time.


Left Outside 03.06.14 at 4:06 pm

Also worth mentioning the ongoing difficulty of indian and chinese restaurants etc to find skilled chefs. They’re excluded because their skills aren’t accredited.


Chris Bertram 03.06.14 at 4:51 pm

Matt: on the right to live in the same country as the person you choose to marry, no, so long as the relationship is genuine I don’t think this should depend on a person’s financial circumstances.

On the visa for creative people. I don’t have to imagine anything from scratch: this used to exist and the UK government abolished it, as mentioned in this excellent article:



Dan Hardie 03.06.14 at 5:41 pm

‘There is no scope for any low skilled migration from out of the EU…’

And this is a bad thing because…?

Presumably because all those low-skilled proles already here are living off the fat of the land, enjoying the high wages they receive for their secure jobs. Frankly (adopts Andrew Neather voice) the low-skilled British working class have things rather too easy, and it’s about time their cosy little world was shaken up a little.


Ronan(rf) 03.06.14 at 5:47 pm

It’s a bad thing because it can stifle development in the sending country (headhunting poorer countries most skilled, increasing inequality through skewed remittances, locking out a large group of people based on soci-economic standing etc)
Whether it’s a bad thing for the British working class is another question. Afaik the answer is not really, though the evidence is ambiguous.


Ed Herdman 03.06.14 at 5:48 pm

It’s always a good day when we can celebrate the unnecessary squeezing of the poor for being, well, poor – and technological prowess (“skilled worker”) is one of the pretty direct proxies for that.


Dan Hardie 03.06.14 at 5:54 pm

Ronan is writing about another Britain than the one where real wages for the bottom 10% actually fell between 2005 and 2010.


Ed Herdman 03.06.14 at 5:56 pm

But what special relevance does 2005-2010 hold in comparison to the long-term trends..? Not sure exactly what fix is being suggested here.


Ronan(rf) 03.06.14 at 5:56 pm

Is this the result of immigration Dan ? If so Im happy to change my opinion, my impression is the link is tenuous ?


Dan Hardie 03.06.14 at 5:59 pm

If you’ve got falling real wages for the lowest-paid 10% of the workforce, then admitting large numbers of unskilled workers will lead to further competition at the bottom of the market; in the best case, wages will stagnate at their already below-2005 level, and in the worst case, they will fall further.

I’m against reducing living standards for the poorest workers, and I’m doubly against pretending that such a stance is ‘progressive’. This is not terribly complicated.


Ed Herdman 03.06.14 at 6:09 pm

Alright, I’m tracking you now. I couldn’t quite suss out the view from the “shake up” post. I can’t argue with your basic argument, but I have to say that unfortunately it’s more complicated.

I think that much of the argument is going to be about pan-nationalism (anti-nationalism?) where you can easily point out that in many cases the plight of people within a developed country is still not as dire as many people who want to move there. If the global warming talk is true, then this really appears to be an ethical issue which doesn’t fit borders.

At the same time I think that realigning (for example) productivity and wages (increases haven’t tracked each other since the ’70s) is going to do more than just denying entry to many people who have their own pressing needs.


Dan Hardie 03.06.14 at 6:16 pm

I think what you’re trying to say is that restoring real wage growth for the lowest-paid 10% will take more than just temporarily restricting the immigration of low-skilled workers. If that is what you’re saying, I agree.

I’m in favour of such things as increasing the bargaining power of trade unions, increasing the level of union membership, reducing the cost of housing for the poorest, reducing their tax burden, and a great many other such measures. It’s possible to see how a leftish government might go about doing at least some of these things, although it’s harder to see how it might do so for others. But the argument against allowing a large amount of low-skilled immigration into a country where the lowest-paid 10% have seen their wages fall for five years in a row is that such a policy will depress wage growth.

As I stated above, in the best case (where there are other factors that tend to increase the demand for unskilled labour) such a policy will mean that wages for the low-skilled grow more slowly than would otherwise be the case. In the worst case (where factors that tend to increase demand for low-skilled labour are absent or weak) then such a policy will actually further depress wages.

Until we see a labour market where the bottom 10% actually see their wages rising, rather than falling, it is not, therefore, ‘progressive’ to support increased immigration by unskilled or low-skilled workers.


Ed Herdman 03.06.14 at 6:36 pm

Realistically speaking, it’s also obvious that there just isn’t a plausible way to smash aside the group of people within a nation to make room for immigrants – politics and outright violence will make that difficult, if possible. Perhaps it’s just the direction wages are going (down, or stagnating) that distinguishes this immigration situation with e.g. immigration into New York at the previous turn of the century.


Philip 03.06.14 at 8:04 pm

The English language requirements for spouses will definitely be discriminatory. At the moment they need to be at beginner level (A1 on the European framework). This was brought in to, supposedly, help integration, in effect it is a barrier for poor people, people with less education, or those in areas where it is difficult to take an approved test, for example someone from the India subcontinent who gets citizenship and wants to marry someone from their hometown or village.

Instead the government should be supporting ESOL provision more, and not leaving providers in the dark about funding and new qualifications to be brought in in September. Spouses tend to get a 2 year visa initially then they can apply for settlement/citizenship, this time could be used to try and attain a given level of English. While I still wouldn’t agree with it, it would make more sense.


Caleb 03.06.14 at 8:18 pm

Matt, you argue in his paper on family-based migration that income thresholds, at some unspecified level, are justified if they are aimed at preserving reciprocity or distributive justice among current citizens. But it is not clear why, if family-based migration is grounded in a basic right, it should not have priority over considerations of distributive justice. The interest that P has to live together with her non-citizen spouse is much weightier, presumably, than the interest of P’s co-citizens in limiting the tax burden on them required to meet the needs of P’s spouse should the latter become a public charge.


Caleb 03.06.14 at 8:18 pm

his paper = your paper


Nick 03.07.14 at 1:40 am

The individuals in the bottom 10% income range in 2005 are not the same people in bottom 10% income range today. There is a lot of year on year mobility, especially at the extreme ends of the income spectrum. And the top and bottom ends of the income spectrum are disproportionately migrants anyway (more dispersion of low and high skilled). The evidence suggests that no section of workers is made worse off by the arrival of immigrants for anything other than a very brief period. That is entirely compatible with widening income inequality at the aggregate level. It could just be a sign of a more successful labour market in the UK, one that produces loads more jobs for both low and high skilled Europeans (I don’t think that’s the only reason, there are also some bad reasons at the top end of the income spectrum). Income inequality can be a sign of welcoming more marginal workers into a labour force, not screwing existing workers more.


JG 03.07.14 at 4:13 pm

In the US experience, at least, low income immigrants frequently don’t stay low income for long: for the Vietnamese who came in after the US lost the war, for instance, the pattern has been worker – small business owner – several small businesses – kids are engineers. That is exactly the pattern of our adopted Vietnamese children. Vietnamese women start doing nails (they didn’t do nails in Vietnam) as a path to a cash based business, and ownership, and prosperity. So we have to be careful about assuming that low income immigrants remain low income for long (e.g., Indians have the highest mean income in the US; Haitians do much better the longer they stay; etc.)



mpowell 03.07.14 at 4:17 pm

Nick @ 17: That agrees with what I’ve heard about it, but the truth of the matter is a social and economic fact tremendously relevant to many of the arguments in this debate. Marshalling more and more persuasive data, both on the impacts to the currently residing poor and middle class and to the extent that inequality measures are already being impacted by immigration would be hugely useful. As you can already see, many of the participants in the discussion even on this thread are assuming that the opposite is true.


Ronan(rf) 03.07.14 at 5:36 pm

I agree with the points @17 and @19 (not that I’d really know, but its my impression) but does anyone know – is there a case for putting more restrictions on low skilled immigration at times of high unemployment (like now) ?

re JG’s @18 – are these cases of low skilled immigration ? My impression (again possibly wrong) is that some types of US immigration (particularly from outside the region) over the last 40 years haven’t been low skilled per se; that the immigrants who have come have done so from relatively prosperous backgrounds in the sending country, with skills, qualifications and some capital. So they may have lived in working class neighbourhoods and worked in lower paid jobs initially, but their skills/qualifications made mobility more likely. What are the rates of mobility like for people migrating from working class backgrounds without skills ?


Dan Hardie 03.07.14 at 7:20 pm

Nick: ‘There is a lot of year on year mobility, especially at the extreme ends of the income spectrum. ‘

Currently calling bullshit on: Nick. If you don’t know that the UK has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world, you haven’t been bothering to pay attention.

From the OECD’s 2010 report on international Social mobility:

‘Across European OECD countries, there is a substantial wage premium associated with growing up in a better-educated family, and a corresponding penalty with growing up in a less-educated family. The premium and penalty are particularly large in southern European countries, as well as in *the United Kingdom*…

‘Existing estimates of the extent to which sons’ earnings levels correlate with those of their fathers (i.e. the “intergenerational earnings elasticity”) find persistence to be particularly pronounced in *the United Kingdom*, Italy, the United States and France.

‘One way to summarise intergenerational wage persistence is through the overall estimated gap between the wage for individuals whose fathers had achieved tertiary education and the wage of individuals whose father had achieved below upper secondary education. According to this measure, intergenerational persistence is particularly strong in some southern European countries and in *the United Kingdom*…

So basically, Nick, you had no empirical grounds for your assertion, but you thought you’d make it anyway?

And Ronan’s comment is a classic: ‘I agree with the points @17 and @19 (not that I’d really know, but its my impression) …’

Yup, don’t let the facts change your opinion- let your opinions guide your impressions of the facts.


Ronan(rf) 03.07.14 at 7:31 pm

Na, the facts as far as I know them support Nick’s claims – that immigration can depress wages in specific sectors etc, but doesn’t have any *general significant* effect or any l/t impact on wages.


Dan Hardie 03.07.14 at 7:47 pm

For Christ’s sake: if you’re going to assert that the facts say x, then link to a source that will back up this claim.

Try reading this, from the House of Lords Committee for Economic Affairs, for example:

‘Most of our witnesses agreed that there is some negative effect of
immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers…

‘Even if immigrants are not competing directly for the same jobs in many
cases, they may still have a strong indirect effect in depressing wages for
resident workers…

‘A recent study of employers’ use of migrant labour49, commissioned by the
Home Office and cited in their evidence to us (p 198), suggests that
employers’ preference for immigrants because of their “general attitude and
work ethic” is not exceptional but fairly prevalent across various sectors,
especially in low-skilled occupations.’

Yes, there’s disagreement on the magnitude of immigration’s effects on the earnings of the poorest-paid workers: for example, the right-wing Institute of Directors thinks it’s not such a big deal. But others think it has rather large effects.

Of course, all I’m going to get by way of a reply is ‘Er, but I think that’s not true, erm, I would link to something but I can’t find it, er, anyway I’m not going to change my mind.’


Ronan(rf) 03.07.14 at 8:30 pm

I don’t think anyone has disputed your 23 Dan, but you didn’t offer that initially. Instead you said:

“Ronan is writing about another Britain than the one where real wages for the bottom 10% actually fell between 2005 and 2010. “

Which I didn’t say.
I’ve accepted it can have a negative effect on wages in the bottom 10%. What effect it has is a technical question, but from what I know there isn’t that much difference between estimates, and most of the responsibility for decreasing wages at the bottom is due to things like technological change and policy making skewed to the advantage of business interests. (and of course in the context of your 2005-10 !! statement, the recession) *
In other words I think you were overstating your position initially, and offering a polemical soundbite backed up by a monocausal argument to restrict immigration by implying that *it* was responsible for the decrease in wages in the bottom 10%. (part of the problem, sure)

On the other part of Nick’s argument (ie mobility outside the bottom 10%, which afaict isn’t the general social mobility that your OECD link is talking about (?) ) I don’t have a clue. My impression is that the people in the bottom 10% most effected by wage decreases are recent immigrants. (or at least in the US, it might be different in the UK)

I also havent said Im oppossed to restricting low skilled immigration at the minute, but I am as a general rule. That’s why I asked above what effect immigration would have at a time of high unemployment.
So this is largely a matter of emphasis (ie I think if you want to improve wages at the bottom there are more important things to focus on, and Im generally in favour of an immigration policy that errs on the side of openness, and that because the effects on the receiving country are generally so insiginificant that the positive impact it has for the migrant (which is substantial) is important.)
I’m also still thinking this through so not fully committed to any *general* position, as it’s a complicated question. Thats it.

* I’m not an economist or academic so can’t judge which estimates are closer to the truth. And this isn’t a get out, more a fact.


Ronan(rf) 03.07.14 at 8:32 pm

typo – ie mobility INSIDE the bottom 10%,


Ed Herdman 03.07.14 at 8:47 pm

Thank you for taking the time, Dan!

Looking very briefly at some of the stuff out there about the US situation, I find some authors using “volatility” (Karen Dynan for Brookings, 2010: ‘rising income volatility’) and others using mobility, like the Equality of Opportunity Project released this year, which Nathaniel Hendren shows “The chance in which kids can climb up or down the income ladder has remained pretty stable over the last 20 to 25 years.”

About ten years ago (don’t see a date on the paper, grr) the Urban Institute’s Austin Nichols wrote: “I define mobility as the variation in individual income trends, and volatility as deviations around those individual trends. Mobility captures variation in income changes over time that are not quickly reversed, or long-term trends in income, and volatility measures the extent of short-term changes around the trend.”

Nick seems to be relying on the volatility measure here.

This dovetails with the conclusion from the paper overall, and indeed I think that Karen Dynan’s “return to normal” seems to be essentially the prospect of stagnation at still low income levels for a large number of people, and she supports policies to support families trying to return to a higher income level, while mentioning that policymakers “continue to deliberate about what additional steps are still needed.”

If immigrant competition creates additional income pressure, then it’s pretty straightforward to say that loosening immigration further will be contrary to an effort to repair the fortunes of the poor.

(links: , , (PDF)


Ed Herdman 03.07.14 at 8:49 pm

Ah, thought those links might not work. Trying again:
Dynan, NPR on Equality of Opportunity Project, Nichols’ Urban Institute paper (PDF)


Dan Hardie 03.07.14 at 8:58 pm

Ronan: In other words I think you were overstating your position initially, and offering a polemical soundbite backed up by a monocausal argument to restrict immigration by implying that *it* was responsible for the decrease in wages in the bottom 10%.

This is plain dishonesty on your part. In fact, as you can verify perfectly easily by scrolling up the page, I wrote:

‘I think what you’re trying to say is that restoring real wage growth for the lowest-paid 10% will take more than just temporarily restricting the immigration of low-skilled workers. If that is what you’re saying, I agree.

I’m in favour of such things as increasing the bargaining power of trade unions, increasing the level of union membership, reducing the cost of housing for the poorest, reducing their tax burden, and a great many other such measures. It’s possible to see how a leftish government might go about doing at least some of these things, although it’s harder to see how it might do so for others. But the argument against allowing a large amount of low-skilled immigration into a country where the lowest-paid 10% have seen their wages fall for five years in a row is that such a policy will depress wage growth.’

When you can muster the honesty to apologise for saying that I argued something that is in fact the exact opposite of what I actually wrote, get back to me.

Until then, I’m not wasting my time on someone who is either too stupid to read a perfectly comprehensible statement that immigration is emphatically *not* to blame for unskilled wage stagnation, or who is too dishonest to argue with what I was actually saying.


Dan Hardie 03.07.14 at 8:59 pm

Last sentence should read, in part: ‘Until then, I’m not wasting my time on someone who is either too stupid to read a perfectly comprehensible statement that immigration is emphatically *not* solely to blame for unskilled wage stagnation’- which it clearly isn’t, and which I never said it was.


Ronan(rf) 03.07.14 at 9:01 pm

Jesus Dan initially. The comment I quoted and didnt respond after. I know your argument was expanded after that, which is fine. Asd I said, difference of emphasis.
Anyway Ive got better things to do so good luck


Ronan(rf) 03.07.14 at 9:02 pm

But yes, sorry. My comment was poorly written and should have made that clear


Dan Hardie 03.07.14 at 9:07 pm

Ed: I’m not going to comment on the US, since I’m not familiar at all with the literature. Insofar as I’ve read the literature on the UK, it all tends towards the conclusion that social mobility in Britain is very low compared to other OECD countries.

Nick, for example, wrote this, although he didn’t give us any sources for it:

‘The individuals in the bottom 10% income range in 2005 are not the same people in bottom 10% income range today. There is a lot of year on year mobility, especially at the extreme ends of the income spectrum. ‘

Nick’s assertion will come as a distinct surprise to the Resolution Foundation. As the Guardian summarised their recent report: ‘Almost three-quarters of Britain’s workers who were on low pay in 2002 failed to escape and stayed stuck with poor wages over the course of the following decade, according to one of the most comprehensive studies investigating Britain’s lack of social mobility.’


Ed Herdman 03.07.14 at 9:12 pm

Yeah, I read Nick’s comment yesterday, and thought it was funny for a couple reasons. I could’ve written something directly challenging it then, but you did a much better job than I would have :)

I still think that we can move another step ahead and say that volatility is a poor measure when compared to mobility, and it gets worse if one takes half-remembered anecdotes about multigenerational poor and lottery winners and spin them out into a statement about the “lot of year on year mobility.” He uses the word mobility but I think the accepted practice of distinguishing between volatility and mobility is wise.


Dan Hardie 03.07.14 at 9:21 pm

Thanks for the links, Ed, and I agree about volatility versus mobility.

Ronan- apology accepted. I should just have said ‘look, that is not what I wrote’, rather than losing my temper with you. Sorry about that, and I hope you have a good weekend.


Ed Herdman 03.07.14 at 9:45 pm

N.B. Those are just literally the first things I found in Google. There may be better stuff. The NPR link comes with some accolades, and I don’t think Brookings / Urban require any introduction though. But probably somebody can do far better than my thirty second search :)


Ronan(rf) 03.07.14 at 10:04 pm

Ah no problem Dan, Ive done it myself (and my comment wasnt clear) No hard feelings


Matt 03.08.14 at 12:44 am

Sorry to be slow to respond, Chris- I’ve been very busy (working on a law case dealing with immigration, in fact)

The story you link to is interesting, but doesn’t give many details on the old “talent” system. (There is some suggestion that one must have written a book to qualify as a writer, but even that wasn’t so clear.) So, it’s hard for me to have much of a view about it. I suppose it seems to fall easily into discretionary categories of the sort that seem to me to rightly settled by political decision-making. Of course, that doesn’t mean one must like the decision a ruling party makes, but only that it’s a decision much like where one should build a park or the like. I’d still want to know more about how decisions are made before I had any good idea if the old system was a good one or not.

Caleb- that’s a good question, and I don’t feel as confident about that part of my view as others. I suppose that even if something is a basic right, that doesn’t mean it can’t be regulated for all sorts of reasons (as an example, think of “time, place, and manner” restrictions of freedom of expression.) But, maybe sponsorship requirements here are wrong. I certainly think they ought to be minimal, but, insofar as they exist, geared towards maintaining reciprocity among current members. I’m certainly willing to admit it’s a hard area that I need to think about more.


Nick 03.08.14 at 2:44 am

I am not basing my claim on volatility, simply on the observation that individuals move through the labour market and usually enter and exit various quintiles and deciles over the course of their working life. When you manage to observe individual employment paths, the results of recent economic history look quite different from observing aggregate deciles: https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/publications/working-papers/iser/2011-06.pdf

The take-away: “…from a longitudinal perspective, income growth is generally progressive. Over any particular period, income growth is greater for those with lower incomes in the base-year distribution.”

I now realise the data there unfortunately only goes up to 2005. This stuff is difficult and takes a longtime to sort through, making it unfortunately quite useless for refuting the calumnies thrown at immigrant workers in the meantime.


Ronan(rf) 03.08.14 at 4:05 am

@38 – having read through the paper quickly, because flummoxed by the math and jargon – the argument is that mobility has increased between/within specific ‘subgroups’ over short periods of time ? But it doesn’t negate the idea that long term inequality has increased and social mobility (measured through income rather than status) declined ?
As a layman, is that it or am I missing something ?


Ed Herdman 03.08.14 at 4:05 am

Maybe we can still manage. The report’s use of “mobility profiles and cumulative profiles,” and the use of the British Household Panel Survey, seems adequately designed to capture those long-term trends. Yet they also mention that those trends aren’t immune to policy:

“We show that in the early years of the Labour government (1998–2002), income growth was more progressive than in the preceding Conservative years (1992–1996 and 1995–1999), but it was not so later in Labour’s term of office (2001–2005)”

– or economic factors. (As an aside: “The BHPS is less representative of post-1991 immigrant groups” and so perhaps we can’t tell with as much certainty which way those groups trend, which is important as they enter society.)

Personally, I share the feeling that immigrants should not be made to answer for every fluctuation in the jobs market and government policy – and far further I think that immigration into the UK (or most any other country) brings good in many other ways that should not be discounted.


Ronan(rf) 03.08.14 at 5:42 am

Fwiw this Branko Milanovich review of Thomas Piketty’s new book is quite good



Chris Bertram 03.08.14 at 8:15 am

Dan Hardie, the go-to source on this is Jonathan Portes, who argues that any effects on the lowest-paid workers are small and are swamped by other factors such as technological change. Moreover, if you look at the areas with the fewest migrants, that’s where native workers have done worst. I’m away from my desk and using my phone to write this, but I’m sure you can use google to find e.g his trashing of Goodhart in the LRB.


Nick 03.08.14 at 10:10 am

My intention isnt to show that labour market outcomes are immune to policy, merely to show, in principle, how a strong majority of individual low income workers could benefit from a labour market regime while aggregate figure show stagnation. In this case, the Labour government managed to quite consistently boost the incomes of whoever turned up in the bottom income quintile. The fact that it was better for low income workers can have the effect of pulling in more marginal workers (from outside the country or from outside the labour force survey), which means you end up wit a whole new set of relatively low income workers.

This is a purely supplementary point to Jonathan Portes. Dan’s response to the Portes response, which shows no bad effects from immigration is ‘but what about income inequality!’. Workers are harmed and increased labour supply is an obvious cause. My response is that income inequality, as its usually measured, isnt a good metric of harm to workers already on a career/employment journey (its still a metric of comncern for subtly different reasons). You need to know where those workers went and, consistent with Portes, most of those workers go a bit up the income scale (perhaps higher than they would have done absent immigrant, that is harder to tell) into another quintile rather than being displaced.


Ed Herdman 03.08.14 at 8:08 pm

I agree increased labor supply can be a factor, but – how is that quantified? Also, how do we square that with Chris’ point (don’t know the source of it though) in #42?

The thought comes to mind that migration is actually a more natural state of affairs than the modern state, especially the modern state with closed borders which is even more temporally unique (and in the era with the breakdown of the traditional agrarian model of subsistence, we don’t have to revert to hunter/gatherer societies to see the use and even need for freedom of migration). Add to this the natural benefits of diverse local populations and I think that the question might really become more of how much synergy can be generated by rubbing elbows with new groups, rather than trying to seek some kind of static equilibrium.


Ronan(rf) 03.09.14 at 2:47 pm

Ed – This is the article Chris is referencing


There’s further (short) disagreement in the responses at the bottom between Portes and Goodhart over the extent to which immigration is responsible for lowering bottom 10% wages. (My impression is that it’s an open question and contested)


Josh G. 03.10.14 at 2:42 pm

Chris Bertram @ 42: “Moreover, if you look at the areas with the fewest migrants, that’s where native workers have done worst.

Maybe so, but the causation is obviously backward. Immigrants generally gravitate to areas that are undergoing economic expansion, for the obvious reason that it’s easier for them to find jobs there. That doesn’t mean they caused the expansion, or that moving a bunch of immigrants to an economically depressed area would result in growth.

Detroit (to take one example) doesn’t have a crappy economy because it has few immigrants; it has few immigrants because it has a crappy economy.


Nick 03.10.14 at 8:33 pm

Perhaps we will get to test that arrow of causation soon: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140219/OPINION01/302190003

The eeffcts are probably minor and slightly beneficial at the national level but are enormously beneficial for individual migrants and many of their families and even home countries; and is probably one of the drivers towards more global income equality. So it seems awfully mean to stop it now.


Matt 03.11.14 at 12:53 pm

Unfortunately, the prospects for immigration reform in the US seem much less sunny than that article suggests, Nick. (It’s a few weeks old, but even then they didn’t seem very bright. All the “murmmurings” I’d heard from Republicans suggested that they were in no hurry, at best. Things have only gotten more explicit on that front since then.)

The article also doesn’t have a lot of detail of what the proposal would be, but I’d be very hesitant to favor visas that tied a migrant to a particular location very tightly. If other forms of visa portability were allowed, perhaps the dangers for exploitation would wash out, but there has been very little talk about making visas portable between jobs in recent discussions. (This is a big mistake, I think, both from the perspective of promoting justice for migrants as well as on economic grounds.) If non-portable visas are then joined with residency requirements, there will be even more opportunity for exploitation. Given the current bad state of the supply of work visas in the US, it might be that anything that increases supply is, all things considered, an improvement, but these particular plans of tying immigrants to particular locations seem to me to be misguided in most ways.


Dan Hardie 03.11.14 at 9:51 pm

Nick, comment 43: ‘Dan’s response to the Portes response, which shows no bad effects from immigration is ‘but what about income inequality!’. ‘

Actually, nobody mentioned Portes before Chris Bertram in comment 42, which was immediately before your comment 43, I didn’t actually respond to Portes. So don’t go pretending I did. Putting words in people’s mouths is not arguing in good faith.


Nick 03.11.14 at 10:55 pm

He is pretty big on this topic (most of us here have read him or at least of him) so I am treating his position as the stand-in for the economic consensus on UK immigration that you reject. It is your position that immigration has hurt income inequality, right? Does a name matter?


Jenny 03.12.14 at 2:03 pm

Hi Chris – I’m a researcher at IPPR and one of the contributors to the report. I thought Id accept your offer to comment.

I don’t agree with everything you wrote. I do agree with your founding premise. Immigration policy is in a bad place. On the day IPPR launched its report, the Immigration Minister announced that he would be ploughing ahead with a policy to reduce net migration to the levels seen in the 1990s. As we have seen over the last three years, this is a policy that is profoundly damaging – to business, to universities, to families, to individuals. It is also unachievable without UKIP-style policies. Yet it is obvious why they are sticking with it, and why all parties will be tempted to make a similar ‘immigration down’ pledge at the next election. The government’s net migration target is easy to explain and speaks directly to people’s expressed concerns: (While the policy is damaging and unrealistic, it sounds practical and helpful). This is where our task (as people who care about furthering a more progressive agenda – whether IPPR or yourself) begins.

Finding a way forward: evidence, principles, politics
In order to come up with an alternative set of immigration policies we made three considerations: what would we like to achieve (the principles of a progressive migration policy), what can we do to achieve these goals (the state of the evidence) and what policies are implementable within a democratic society (the politics). The evidence is well-known. While there will be some disagreement around ‘progressive principles’, we set out our thoughts here (http://www.ippr.org/publication/55/10188/fair-and-democratic-migration-policy-a-principled-framework-for-the-uk) and achieved fairly broad consensus. The politics is more challenging. In order to design immigration policy that achieved public consent, we sought to understand public concerns on immigration in greater detail. The research showed how emotional this subject is but that people were less concerned about overall ‘numbers’ and more about migration being seen to be bound up with systems that treat people unfairly. This wasn’t just about migrants claiming social security payments without having worked in the UK, it was about landlords ripping off migrant workers. If political actors want to diffuse the toxicity of migration, they need to address these concerns.

You claim that IPPR’s report ‘panders to prejudice’. I disagree. No one who cares about migrants and immigration and wants to see change happen can ignore the current political situation. Yes, we should try and change the politics surrounding migration. Many organisations do brilliant work here. However, unless we want another five years of increasingly restrictive and damaging immigration policies we need to seek a way forward within the current political reality as well. There is another reason for doing this. A core progressive principle is that policy should be democratic. There are red lines that no state should cross (and immigration policy has come close to transgressing these lines in recent years). But decision makers still need to explain what they’re doing and the consequences of their actions. They need to achieve the consent of the population for these actions. Political leaders need to do a better job on this, but they can’t ignore the challenge.

Better policy
All of the policies emerge from these considerations – is it principled, is it evidence based and is it capable of achieving public consent? Within this sits our central recommendation (to which all the others are linked) – a future government should not commit to reducing immigration. This is a major departure from current government policy. It is the right approach for two reasons:

• It allows the government to use immigration policy to achieve wider progressive objectives. We argue that immigration policy should not become a target in itself but be set to meet wider objectives – such as full employment, humanitarian responsibilities or reduced inequality. In order to achieve this we need an immigration system that works and that is designed to attract migrants that can contribute towards these goals – the ‘brightest and best’. There are limits on what the UK can do, but this is a fairly uncontroversial position. We don’t argue that the ‘value’ of migrants should be set according to their income or investment potential: IPPR are currently looking to get a project off the ground that looks at ways that we can attract musicians and innovators to the UK as well as retain many of the thousands of students who have come to the UK to study, only to be forced out once they’ve received their training.
• It takes the focus away from how many people are coming and going and towards what happens when people get here. The current ‘net migration’ approach counts people out and in the country without any sight of what happens when they get here. Given that migration is now an inevitable (and positive) part of life in the UK we need to look at what this means for our unregulated private rented sector, flexible labour market and the way we provide public services. Our report sets out some options.

Your blog looks at a number of the specific policy areas that we look at. I wanted to pick up on one – family migration. I disagree that getting rid of the Surinder Singh rule would be ‘not progressive’. We are looking to achieve a level playing field for all couples. The criteria that family migrants need to demonstrate in order to come and live in the UK (around ability to support etc) is open for debate. But it is better that this criteria is set according to meaningful considerations rather than quirks of EU law. One of the criteria we argue for is that family migrants should have a good standard of English. This is an area I would defend strongly. Speaking English is a major pre-requisite of being able to live independently, to live well and to be able to participate in UK society – whether in your children’s school, in a job or among friends. Yes – it is easier to learn English in the UK. But, as other commenters have noted, how do you encourage/ require people to do this without some fairly draconian measures?

It’s great to read your thoughts on the report and hope we can continue to discuss it. Thanks for allowing me to comment – I’d be interested in your response.



Chris Bertram 03.12.14 at 5:45 pm

Thanks Jenny, you make many good points.

In this whole area it is rather difficult to disentangle issues of principle and the pragmatics of politics, with the further complication that there are principled reasons for being pragmatic (because we want to change things for the better).

You are right that politicians need to engage with the public and that there’s a close connection between progressive politics and democracy. However this connection poses special problems in relation to immigration precisely because the set of affected persons is so much wider that the group of people whose votes count. You believe that state policy has come close to crossing “red lines”; I think it has probably crossed them in a number of areas but particularly in relation to asylum policy and the right of citizens to a family life.

I think this latter point explains why we disagree about Surinder Singh. Of course, the Surinder Singh route is an anomaly and offends against the idea of equal treatment. But it is an anomaly that gets us a lot closer to what justice substantively requires than small improvements to the existing spousal sponsorship regime do. In short, I’d rather than some people were able to evade a basically unjust and discriminatory policy rather than having everyone subject to that policy. The basic principle ought to be that people should have the right to live with their partner in country they choose from the ones they are citizens of: even a lowering of the income requirement to the living wage (though an improvement) will separate some couples, giving lower legal rights to some citizens through an income qualification. I absolutely agree with you that English is vitally important to integration, but I think this goal is best pursued by supporting families in the UK rather than by the threat of exclusion.

I’m very glad to hear that IPPR is working on a project to get musicians and innovators to the UK and that you value migrants more broadly than for their narrowly economic contribution.

A final worry: the IPPR is trying to frame the migration debate within a fairness agenda. That sounds admirable and the emphasis on what people can do for one another, on reciprocity, is certainly better than some of the alternatives. However, the downside of this narrative is the stigmatization of those who are getting “something for nothing” and the corresponding valorization of “hardworking families”. This actually makes it harder to address many of the social issues our society faces — the culture of overwork, the lack of time for family and other activities, the emphasis on private consumption at the expense of collective provision — and makes some policies (such as basic income) politically infeasible. It also tends to undermine the idea that people do have a basic right to live with their foreign partner: this ends up being conditionalized on making a contribution, and that’s a problem.

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