To admit or not to admit? The tricky business of calculating migration trade offs.

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By Don Flynn (MRN)

Politicians of all parties intone the mantra about the need for a ‘grownup’ debate on immigration when a crisis washes over the headlines of the tabloids.

What we hear less about is the extent to which the political class shoulders so much of the responsibility for the fact that this much needed conversation has failed to get off the ground.

The evidence and the facts which ought to be driving the debate are generally absent across vast, critical areas of the policy spectrum. Migration impacts on housing, schools, health services, and even the jobs market are known about only at the sketchiest, most anecdotal level

The fault for this simply has to lie with political leaderships who, quite frankly, find that whenever it comes to connecting with public thinking on immigration, the facts simply spoil the tales they want to tell. “Yes, we feel your pain”, they want to be heard saying. “We know how the jobs, the houses, the GP services and all the best school places are going to the newcomers. We know the immigration services we have are supposed to be in charge of aren’t ‘fit for purpose’.” This time, we are told, they really are going to sort it out.

It is true that partial efforts have been made to excavate the evidence base in recent times, with the establishment of the independent Migration Advisory Committee by the Labour government being the best example. The MAC helps out by responding to requests from government about the various options they have for addressing economic and labour market aspects of migration. It has, no doubt, made a valuable contribution in sorting out some of the wheat from the chaff which are present in the policy debates.

But in other areas the evidence needed to take good decisions about the shape and direction either isn’t present, or is deeply distrusted by the decision-makers. The closer the arguments get to the things the politicians really care about, the less inclined they are to consider facts which contradict their most firmly held prejudices.

Sarah Spencer’s new book, The Migration Debate, offers itself up as a way of trying to wade through the morass of bad faith and wilful ignorance which characterises so much of the thinking of our lords and masters. Her argument is that we have to persuade those responsible for developing policies in the area of immigration to think about the trade-offs which are really engaged whenever perspectives are set out which say that we will go in the direction of A, rather than B, when we consider the future of the Points-Based System, rights to family reunification, settlement, access to public funds and services, etc.

The idea here is that when the conversation is tied to the practicalities of ‘what happens if….’ then we are equipping ourselves with some sort of metric which would allow us to measure the consequences of the measures that are enacted.

Measuring impacts of policy is important, with immigration just as with housing, child poverty or quantitative easing. To date the politicians have asked that they be judged by benchmarks which appeal to popular sentiment on the issue, but which seldom link up to real gains which might be expected to arise for public welfare and well-being. Tony Blair obsessed about the importance of achieving his ‘double dip’ – that asylum numbers would be halved within 12 months and the numbers of refused applicants removed each month would be greater than the number of new refugees entering the system.

Now the coalition government is asking us to support its drive to reduce positive net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by 2015. What both sets of politicians have in common is that they made their pitches essential to what they though and hoped would be popular with an electorate which was as poorly equipped to evaluate the evidence as they were, and that, with the aid of a wing and a prayer, that might come up with numbers that they could pass off as success.

Spencer cautions that this is not a happy star to steer the great affairs of state by. The record seems to suggest that in any event, the great British public tends to distrust arguments that are based solely on numbers, thinking that the politicians are going to fiddle them in any case. This distrustful frame of mind is in turn worked on by the tabloid headline writers and right wing political entrepreneurs, who have all the skills needed to show that 2 plus 2 in fact equals 5.

An approach which would get beyond this cynicism would, Spencer suggested, have to extract more of its evidence on impacts and trade-offs from the regional and local areas of life, rather than the big picture abstractions which the national state tends to operate most comfortably with. What will be the effect of excluding migrant care workers from the PBS in the London area, for example, where they currently make up 80% of all workers in the sector? Excluding newly arrived migrants from public funds might appeal to the emotion that people should have entitlements only after they have contributed, but this has to be weighed against the danger of imposing heavy costs on newly arrived families which translate into indebtedness and long-term poverty.

The trade-offs approach forces politicians and the public to ask questions like, what is most important to the country’s medium and long-term prospects for prosperity – fewer overseas students, who might want to work there way through their studies in relatively low-paid jobs, or the loss of a significant proportion of the £10 billion of extra value they bring to the UK economy. In the jobs market, training up workers already resident here seems like a policy no-brainer, but how far does this really conflict with a willingness to admit migrants in skill shortage sectors who, after all, will be paying the tax revenues which allow the public sector to train and retrain the Brits?

But for Spencer, these are so many questions to which, at the moment, we have far too few answers. For her, the critical element in organising an intelligent discussion on immigration is leadership from politicians who are prepared to support the evidence-gathering exercise which will allow them to be answered.

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