Defining immigration ‘problems’ – their spin versus our reality

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The government’s narrative on the ‘problems’ of immigration began to fall apart at the seams last week, as the claims of Ministers on migration and benefit claims dissolved under closer examination. It has been a setback for the anti-immigration lobby, but how do we follow it up?
I had the opportunity to give my views on the DWP report on unemployment and non-UK-born benefits recipients on the BBC’s News 24 channel last week.

Having made the point, hopefully persuasively, that the statistics considered in that piece of work contradicted the spin the two government ministers, Grayling and Green, had attempted to put in it, the programme presenter pushed me to set out my own solutions to ‘the problem’.

‘But the report makes it pretty clear there isn’t a problem with regard to migrants and welfare benefits’, I said. ‘Ah yes,’ said the presenter, ‘But the public thinks there is a problem and they will want to know your solution to it.” (NB may be not the exact words, but certainly the spirit of the exchange).

Offering up solutions to problems which the public thinks exist, but don’t in reality, is a skill required of anyone setting out the positive case for migration. The vested interests which support the careers of politicians seem to allow only a limited range of responses.

One of these, used by Messrs Grayling and Green, is to ramp up the sense that the problem is real, and perhaps even worse than the public imagines it. After all, solving imaginary problems is a lot easier than tackling the stuff that really exists out there: swishing sticks at phantoms will always keep the phantoms at bay because they are, after all, just phantoms.

Phantoms at the borders
Another, less remarked on example of ‘phantom containment’ policy in the immigration field rolled out last week, in the form of the publication of the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) on the border controls drama which gripped the nation last November and produced the fall from grace of the head of the UK border force, Mr Brodie Clark.

HASC reports are often frustratingly narrow in the way they interpret their remit. Its potential to examine ‘the expenditure, administration, and policy of the Home Office and its associated public bodies,’ implies that it might have some role in determining the wisdom of the thinking which guides activity in all these areas.

In fact its cross-party nature requires a large degree of consensus about what ‘the problem’ once again is, and it is usually deemed prudent to presume that this is no more than examination of the gap between what government claims for its policies and what it actually achieves.

On the issue of border controls, what government claims is that the movement of people across UK frontiers constitutes such a risk as to require a strict identity check on each and every one of them, requiring examination of passports and other travel documents, and also the biometrics of the holder. The resources demanded for these operations had come under strain in the summer of 2011 as the UK Border Agency struggled to manage on budget which had been cut back by 10% that year.

The outcome was the crisis of the summer of 2011, which saw queues at some UK airports taking up to three hours to clear by border agency officials. The subsequent decision to switch to ‘risk based’ assessment of level of threat which any individual passenger might pose was deemed to have been so controversial as to require the suspension of Mr Clark and two of his senior colleagues for having exceeded their authority.

Extent of risk
We are fortunate enough to know a great deal about the level of risk posed to security by border crossings. Measured across whole populations it can be quantified as negligible. So negligible in fact, that our continental neighbours have abolished all forms of checks on people moving within the EU member state area. This has saved vast amounts of unproductive expenditure on the checks of identity papers of individuals which so rarely, if ever, by that action alone, result in the identification of a genuine threat.

The extent to which the UK was exposed to any significant risk as a result of the adoption of risk based assessment seems to have played no role in the HASC inquiry, though in the end, that is the only thing that really matters. It fusses and frets about whether ministers were or were not informed about operational decisions at the level of action to address the problem of the alarming growth of queues and longer periods for clearing arrivals, concluding that, in the end, other inquiries will be better placed to resolve that issue.

It seems likely that the risk based approach will finally get clearance at ministerial level. The evidence is pretty overwhelming that an intelligence-based approach to managing risk, identifying things that really go on in this world, like the smuggling of firearms and other contraband by focussing on the transactions which indicate criminal activity, rather than wasting cast amounts of time and resources in checking everyone who crosses the border. The growth of queues, so unwelcome particularly in the year of the London Olympics, will be somewhat contained, even it movement is not conducted with the ease of crossing an EU Schengen border.

Set-backs to come?
The point here is that the overheated and misdirected agenda generated by the populism of the UK political mainstream, and which draws the media and the general public into its maw, is proving spectacularly inept at identifying the real problems which are bound up with realities of human migration.

The failure of the government ministers to spin their take on the unemployment and benefit claimant figures, and the success of critics in challenging this interpretation, shows that the dominant, anti-immigrant narrative can be picked apart and the political forces which are camped out on that terrain pushed into disarray.

Last week was actually a good week for proponents of a positive approach to immigration. If we can maintain our own capacity for close analysis of the effects of government policy, combined with detailed knowledge of the realities experienced by people in the towns and regions of the UK, there will be plenty more of these in the future.

Source: Don Flynn (MRN)

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