In a recent report published by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, the government has been advised to review its approach to immigration policy. The committee has indicated that the means currently being used by the government to make policy decisions are often unreliable, leading to trust in the system being undermined. Aside from the general criticism levelled at the government’s approach to immigration, particular concerns were raised regarding the inadequate use of statistics and other data, which can often be used to form immigration policy. The result is a failure to keep accurate records on migration flows, an inadequate system for monitoring the number of illegal migrants, poor recording of economic data concerned with migration, and unrealistic targets on migration in general. The report encouraged the government not to strenuously pursue its policy of creating a “hostile environment” for migrants, given that its own system is prone to errors and the high risk of potentially law abiding citizens being affected as a result. Finally, the report suggested that there should be different approaches for different types of migration, tackling widespread misconceptions about migration and the factors associated with it.
The widely publicised target of ‘tens of thousands’ for net migration was introduced by David Cameron and the coalition government in 2010. It has never been met. In fact, according to the report, the figure has undermined public confidence in a system that now looks broken. Further, the target does not differentiate between different types of migration, leading to a state of confusion instead of much-needed certainty and clarity. The report recommends that the tens of thousands target should be abandoned and replaced with “a framework of targets and controls based on evidence”.
Another area of concern highlighted in the report relates to the lack of analysis of migration flows and the failure to keep an official record of people entering and leaving the UK. The government currently uses data collated from the censuses carried out every 10 years, as well as from the International Passenger Survey (IPS), a study conducted by the Office for National Statistics since the 1960s, which is used by various government departments but was not originally meant to count migration. Overall figures produced by the IPS are more or less accurate, but there remains a degree of uncertainty over the numbers of specific groups of migrants. Policy decisions drawn from potentially mistaken conclusions that are based on unreliable data risk undermining confidence in the whole system, according to the report. Although the government reintroduced partial exit checks in 2015, limited to people who have come to the UK on a visa since that time, the checks do not cover other categories of travellers. The Home Affairs Committee welcomed plans to widen exit checks to all travellers and increase their accuracy. It also suggests that the government should stop relying on data produced by the decennial census.
Although illegal migration has consistently been a matter of public interest, the data on the number of people currently in the country illegally is remarkably scarce, which impacts negatively on decision-making and policy adjustments. There is also a counterintuitive lack of research on the interaction between migration from the EU and the wider UK labour market following the Brexit referendum in 2016 – an issue that was only addressed six months after the vote when an assessment was commissioned by the government. To guard against the perceived indifference that a lacklustre approach to the issue of illegal migration might evoke, the report encourages the government to extrapolate information that is already available, together with data that can be further obtained; and to release official yearly data that accurately reflects the current state of affairs. In relation to the lack of research, the report warns, however, that there will be an “evidence vacuum” when producing a relevant white paper later this year, which might also prejudice future negotiations with the EU on the future relationship.
The government launched its “hostile environment” policy back in 2012, when Theresa May was Home Secretary, to show that it was prepared to be “tough” on immigration breaches. Two major pieces of legislation have been passed since this time (the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016) and measures now include revoking driving licences, restricting the rights to rent a property and work, as well as significantly reducing the rights to appeal against immigration decisions. Although such measures were intended for non-EU nationals only, there have been clear indications that the situation of EU nationals is increasingly “hostile”, with reports of correspondence being sent to EU citizens, for example, referring to a ‘requirement’ to leave the UK and the ‘forfeiture’ of their free movement rights. The Home Affairs Committee report urges the government not to seek a “panacea” through such policies, however, which will inevitably result in distress and frustration to individuals incorrectly targeted by the hostile environment.
Finally, although it generally favours a reduction in migration, public opinion differentiates between the types of migration, with individuals who contribute to the economy viewed as more favourable to those perceived as a burden on welfare state. The Home Affairs Committee concludes that, by failing to distinguish between the different types of migration, the government is contributing to a polarisation of the debate. To tackle this, the government is invited to abandon its net migration target, replacing it with a more sensible, evidence-based, framework for different categories of migration.
It remains to be seen whether the government will heed the recommendations provided by the Home Affairs Committee in the implementation of future immigration policies, particularly with the UK’s formal exit date from the EU looming on the horizon.
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