Monday, October 17, 2011

What can politicians do about immigration?

A recently published study has claimed that politicians can do relatively little. An excerpt:

"[. . .] The study of 1,000 found people were most concerned about immigrant groups politicians could do little to cut. The research by the university's Migration Observatory found broad overall support for cutting immigration to the UK, although less in Scotland. [. . .] The Migration Observatory said it wanted answers to two questions that do not feature in standard opinion polls on immigration. It asked respondents whom they referred to as immigrants and whether they wanted cuts to specific categories, such as asylum seekers, workers or students.

The report found approximately 70% of people want a cut in immigrants, broadly supporting previous surveys. A fifth said they thought immigration should stay at current levels. Six out of 10 people thought the most likely reason someone came to the UK was for asylum, followed by just over half saying migrants mainly arrived to work. This contrasted sharply with official statistics that show students make up the largest group of immigrants, followed by workers. Approximately 4% of all migrants in 2009 were asylum seekers.[. . .]" (see here for the report).

One important part of any government's immigration policy is to help clarify the situation for the public. It is unhelpful to plan policies around deep misperceptions about immigration, such as the numbers arriving as asylum seekers. While the government may not be able to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers and EU citizens, the government can control non-EU student visas and these have faced a substantial reduction. The wider concern many have is that this effort to show action on immigration may be harmful to the UK's economic recovery and very unwelcome by the higher education sector.

Of course, a second part is revising - and updating - the UK's Life in the UK citizenship test which we have noted before. There also appears to be action on this as well by the government, which is a welcome development which I will be following closely and providing updates where possible.

UPDATE: I recommend Matt Cavanaugh's piece here with analysis of the above mentioned report.


Matt said...

Interesting stuff. People's perceptions about "asylum seekers" are almost always widely off. One category that's not listed is family unification/reunification, but that's a very important category of immigrants in most countries.

I find it interesting that most people polled have a idea of immigrants that doesn't fit the "official" UK definition, but does fit the one used in many other countries (including the US), where an immigrant is someone coming who has the right to remain permanently, while those with only the right to remain for a set period of time are non-immigrants of one sort or another. I find this more intuitive, but then, I work in the US system. (It seems to me that there are important normative and policy differences about someone with a right to remain permanently and someone, such as a student, who does not have this right. Using the same term because each stays for more than a year leads to confusion, I think.) In all of this, I do wish politicians and government officials would do better education as to actual policies and how they work.

The Brooks Blog said...

I happily defer to your much better expertise in the area - and thank you for these comments. I agree with you that the UK could do better in how it conceives of immigrants - and it doesn't make sense to me either. It is surely right that politicians and civil servants should become better educated on the areas where they legislate and not only to better educate the public. The present problem is that - as in Plato's Cave - the demos create false images to which the politicians mistakenly react. If only they took the trouble to see the matter in its true light...

John said...

Perhaps few people realise that the current levels of immigration, introduced by Labour in 1997, are truly epic and comparable with any of the historical mass migrations and population replacements anywhere in the world. See Predicted population of Britain. The real problem is sheer rate of social change and ultimately, overpopulation.

The Brooks Blog said...

Many thanks for your reflections, John. I think it's fairly incredible to claim Labour somehow "caused" increasing immigration during the Blair years. There is nothing I've read to convince me the situation would have been any different (e.g., less immigration) if Major had remained in government given conditions at the time.

If anything, it has been Labour that has led from the front in attempting to address public concerns. These efforts include launching the UK citizenship test and points system for immigrants.

The coalition government - despite much rhetoric on how much more seriously they take immigration than any previous government - has yet to update the current test which was last published in March 2007 and informs all prospective immigrants that the Home Secretary is Rt Hon John Reid. (Note: after my interview on BBC Radio 4 where I called on the government to update its test, the Prime Minister has confirmed there will be a new updated test published next year.) That said, the government has found that, in fact, there isn't much that it can do aside from approving fewer non-EU student visas (damaging to the fragile UK economy) and make it ever more difficult (and costly) for non-EU immigrants.

I believe fears of overpopulation are overblown: beyond pure speculation, no one working in this area genuinely appears to believe overpopulation is a problem. If anything, the problem is a growing ageing population with too few of working age to support current support systems. There is a need for more people with important skills to support the economy.

The idea that social identity might also change...well, when was this not true? The UK is a diverse country that has been home to the Romans, the Normans, etc. so new populations are hardly a new phenomena for anyone who looks seriously at British history.

The true state of play is that immigrants both enrich us culturally and economically. We need not support open borders, but we should recognise the strong economic - and cultural - reasons to promote the UK as a welcoming new home for ambitious future citizens.