Monday 20 April 2015

Manifesto Check: Labour’s immigration policies are led by public opinion, not evidence

by Ian Preston

Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London.

Labour’s commitment to controlling immigration had already been made clear by its announcement as one of Labour’s five election pledges. But the party’s manifesto goes further to explain the policies, and how they would be implemented.

The party declares that it wishes to “look outward”, while recognising “public anxiety” and the people’s need “to feel secure in the strength of our borders.” The manifesto identifies specific public concerns, such as effects on wages, public services and “our shared way of life”. Public anxiety is undeniable, and according to research, social concerns may be more significant than economic ones.

No view is advanced by Labour as to whether these concerns are well-founded: research suggests that economic concerns, for example, are not. The evidence fails to point persuasively to any adverse impact on average wages or employment. As regards public finances, research shows that recent immigrants both contribute more in taxes than they withdraw in calls on public services and provide much of the staffing for some parts of the public sector.

Restricting immigration might assuage public concern, but it could also fail to achieve gains in average wages, and lead to less healthy public finances.

Different types of immigrants

Public opinion distinguishes between different types of immigrants. For example, the British public tends to be more positive about students, highly-skilled migrants and close family members, than about low-skilled economic migrants, extended family members, refugees and those who enter or stay in the country illegally.

Labour’s manifesto promises to mildly tighten, or to maintain the tightness of, restrictions on unpopular forms of migration. Although the party mentions some of the benefits of some forms of immigration – such as overseas students – it does not make any proposals to relax restrictions for these groups.

The manifesto claims that under a Labour government, immigration by serious criminals will be more strongly policed. Inevitably, immigrants include some people who will commit crimes and some people who will be victims of crimes. But many studies in a number of countries have failed to find a convincing association between migration flows and crime rates.

Labour also plans to crack down on the abuse of short-term student visas, although how this policy will differ to the kind of tightening that has already been pursued is unclear. There is a risk of discouragement to innovation from limiting graduate recruitment and the party welcomes the contributions of overseas students, but there are no explicit proposals for changes to terms of entry for this group (such as reviving a post-study work route).

Labour’s manifesto criticises the Conservatives for undermining public trust by committing to a target that was not met. The party makes no commitment to any defined number or cap on overall immigration, and there is therefore no discussion about which types of immigrants should be considered in any target. But the party does state a view that low skilled migration “needs to come down” and does commit to retaining the cap on migration for workers from outside the EU, currently set at a little over 20 thousand for employer-sponsored skilled migrants.

The European issue

In its section on Europe, the manifesto promises to “secure reforms to immigration and social security rules, as well as pushing for stronger transitional controls”. Evidence that welfare tourism is a serious problem is actually slim, so the extent to which this might substantially discourage European migration is doubtful. Nevertheless, the party pledges to revoke the right to send child benefits abroad, and promises to implement a two-year delay on benefit receipt for EU migrants.

The implementation of such policies would face issues of compatibility with EU law. As a result, how easy these changes are to implement will depend on the extent to which they are regarded as inhibiting freedom of movement for work, and on the negotiating abilities of a Labour government within the EU.

Labour also promises to protect low wages against exploitative immigration, with bans on recruitment agencies hiring exclusively from abroad, and an extension of Gangmaster Licensing law (which currently covers only agriculture and food processing). It is true that the strongest evidence of any negative effects of immigration on wages occurs at the bottom end of the distribution, so this measure seems appropriately targeted.

Alongside these proposed tightenings, there are also administrative changes. The party commits itself to full checks on exits, a promise frequently made by different parties over the past decade and already partially implemented. In principle, if realised, this should improve monitoring of net migration numbers. More border staff are promised, financed by a charge on non-visa visitors of a small – but unspecified – magnitude.

There are some proposals to address rights and welfare of migrants. There is a promise to end indefinite detention, and to end detention altogether for pregnant women and victims of trafficking and abuse. Labour pledges to provide refuge to genuine victims of persecution, but there is no explicit commitment to numbers. The UK currently does less than its EU neighbours in terms of sheltering Syrian refugees.

There is no mention of any change to rules on family migration.

Acknowledgement: This piece was published first at The Conversation.

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