The UK Immigration Debate: more of the same, with a side order of ‘managed migration’

by Erica Consterdine

Judging by the sheer scale of coverage in the press on immigration, and the constant barrage of ‘getting control of the borders’ from politicians on all sides of the house, you may consider that immigration is an issue which is finally facing serious and considered debate. But is this a ‘new’ debate? After forty years of trying to ‘duck the issue’, does the recent explosion of coverage on immigration from both the press and the political elite represent a new era for the immigration debate? My research on immigration policy in Britain shows that the current debates on immigration are recycled debates which underpinned policy in the 20th century. However, the legacy of the Labour administrations’ managed migration programme has somewhat shifted the debate on to economic utilitarian arguments about immigration.

Britain was once known as a country of zero immigration. Throughout the 20th successive governments regardless of party affiliation sought to limit immigration on the assumption that good race relations necessitated minimum immigration. Dubbed the Hattersley equation, this was the bipartisan consensus which underpinned Britain’s immigration policy for forty years.

The Labour administrations of 1997 to 2010 somewhat changed this equation, being equally tough in rhetoric and policy on asylum seekers, whilst somewhat liberalising labour immigration routes, creating a dual equation between increasingly restrictive measures on asylum seekers whilst almost tacitly pursuing expansive policies on ‘wanted’ immigration. Absorbing the third way of politics, and a belief in the inevitability of globalisation, the so-called Blunkett equation was premised on the notion that more ‘good’ immigration (economic migrants with skills) equals less ‘bad’ immigration (irregular migration). Suffice to say the Labour governments’ policies did not please the electorate on the whole, and the Labour opposition have since been apologising for the ‘mistakes’ made on immigration policy.

The 2010s has been marked by a situation where no party can duck the issue of immigration, as they had throughout the 20th century. The British public want less immigration and consider this an imperative voting issue now. And with an EU referendum potentially imminent, the ‘cost’ of being part of the union is begging. Yet the demands of business, the City, and our global trade both in and outside the EU not to forget Britain’s’ foreign policy objectives lends ultimately to more immigration Has the immigration debate really evolved then?

Numbers game

Adjusting migration streams has long been a strategy politicians have employed to present an element of control. Usually this involves limiting one type of migration whilst tacitly expanding another, otherwise known as the ‘numbers game’. Home Secretary Merlyn Rees declared that the numbers game was over in 1978[1], but is this true?

A glance at the Coalition’s policy suggests not. Indeed this is the most explicitly numerical immigration policy, literally based on an aspiring target of tens of thousands. Yet the ‘liberal paradox’ of immigration finds the government in an internal battle between the City and a business community warning against the Government’s policy and a popular manifesto pledge.

Ultimately the numbers game has come to play yet again, if it ever went away. The solution has been to exclude certain categories from the net migration target. In response to lobbying from banks and law firms, migrants earning more than £150,000 were exempted from the annual limit. The second exemption was intra-company transfers, a move certainly made in response to concerted lobbying from multinational firms. This was numerically significant as intra-company transfers accounted for approximately 22,000 of the 36,490 non-EU skilled workers entering the UK in 2009.

But with the Migration Advisory Committee warning that even entirely closing Tier 1 and 2 of the points-based system (highly skilled and skilled work routes) will unlikely achieve the net migration target, the Coalition government now find themselves desperately surveying other routes to curtail (MAC, 2010). The last stream within the government’s control is student immigration and measures have been employed to reduce such abuses and misuses of this route. Yet non-EU student migration is reported to generate £2.2 billion for the higher education sector, leading some on the left to claim that keeping student migration is part of a ‘game’ to own its net migration target.

Ultimately efforts to curtail labour migration may result in a significant rise in irregular migration. No matter for Home Secretary Theresa May (who is responsible for developing and delivering immigration policy), that figure is not part of the net migration target. It seems the numbers game continues to underpin immigration policy then, perhaps more so than ever.

EU membership

In the months leading up to the lapsing of transitional controls in January, the political elite were in frenzy over the potential of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants coming to Britain to ‘welfare shop’. With UK Independence Party (UKIP) banging the eurosceptic drum, and the hard right of the Tory faithful insistent on changes and possibly withdrawal from the EU, the ‘costs’ of being part of the community have now become explicitly tangled with the immigration debate. Is this a new debate brought about the growing EU community then?

Rewind to when Britain joined the community in 1973, and it would appear not. As Britain approached accession, it became clear that Britain would now have an unlimited pool of now permit-free foreign labour. Consequently it was resolved that further limits to New Commonwealth immigrants would have to be made. Once again the numbers game played out, and the 1971 Immigration Act was established, which would put a final end to Commonwealth citizenship.

But the debate on the costs of joining the community nonetheless came to dominant Whitehall circles[2]. While the government repeatedly claimed that immigration flows from the EEC would be small, it was found that prior to accession 40 per cent of total work permits were issued to EEC nationals. Of these just fewer than forty per cent went to Italians. Now familiar fears of migrants coming to Britain to ‘welfare shop’ monopolized the debate; in the 1970s it was the Italians, today it is purportedly Central and Eastern Europeans.

Nonetheless, Britain’s accession to the EEC was deemed imperative, and in response to concerns over the implications of free movement of labour, central government maintained that ‘It is important that nothing should be said that casts doubt with the Six’[3]. It was concluded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that ‘the political gains outweigh the political costs’.

It seems the battle for British governments on EU immigration was and continues to be a foreign policy dilemma at its heart. Heath considered the price of membership worth it 1973, the question remains whether the British public agree if a referendum comes forward in the next Parliament.

Bipartisan consensus?

Under the Labour administrations of 1997 to 2010 the Hattersely equation was somewhat modified. The new framing of immigration policy was based on economic utilitarian arguments and this has changed the framing of Britain’s immigration policy.

While the Coalition government have asserted that immigration must be cut to sustainable levels, the rhetorical arguments for restricting immigration are, in the main, economically grounded. Cameron even argued that immigration should be, ‘a centrepiece of our economic policy’. Any political rhetoric expressing the aim to reduce immigration is now counterbalanced with the economically positive aspects that immigrants bring. This is usually articulated via the mantra of attracting the ‘brightest and the best’, which is lifted straight from the New Labour script. The Coalition policy may be restrictive, but few politicians suggest that immigration is unequivocally a bad thing economically.

It seems the bipartisan consensus has been modernised. There is much less talk of race relations, and whilst the government’s policy is restrictive, it is nonetheless on the whole more susceptive to labour market needs. The preservation of the Points Based System, the Migration Advisory Committee and the mantra of ‘brightest and best’, all equates to an immigration debate based on the economic utilization of immigrants. This represents a fundamental shift in the policy framing of immigration.

Nonetheless, the strategy of employing the numbers game and Britain’s continuing dilemma in whether the costs of membership to the EU are worth it, persist in dominating the political debate on immigration. A week may be a long time in politics, yet it seems when it comes to immigration the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

Erica Consterdine is a doctoral researcher and associate tutor in the Department of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. Her PhD research focuses on immigration policy-making and policy change under the Labour governments of 1997-2010, with a particular focus on labour/economic migration.  The research draws on over 50 elite interviews, archive and document analysis and participant observation at the Home Office. Erica holds a BA in Sociology, MA in Migration Studies and an MSc in Social Research Methods from the University of Sussex. 

[1] TNA CAB 130/1007 ‘Select Committee on race relations and immigration: report on immigration, draft statement by Home Secretary, 1978.

[2] TNA CAB 164/460, Study Group on Mobility of Labour and Social Policy, Note on the Implication of Entry into Europe for Mobility of Labour, Migration and Employment, undated.

[3] TNA FCO 50/358, ‘Negotiating brief for UK entry into the EEC effects on immigration in the UK and probable effects on immigration controls if Britain joins the EEC, ‘Parliamentary: free movement of labour,’ Letter to Mr H Jenkins from P.A. McLean, 6 February 1970.

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