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Home Opinion Progress or pitfall? Tentative steps in UK migration policy

Progress or pitfall? Tentative steps in UK migration policy

Annie Bruzzone - 28 April 2009

The underlying objectives behind the overhaul of all previous UK immigration and citizenship legislation are a step in the right direction, but progress is hampered by the policy framework which guides delivery

In recent years, anyone who was looking closely enough might have perceived subtle changes in the terms of immigration debates around Europe. The new realities of intra-EU migration challenged long-held attitudes and policy approaches; immigration was quite plainly a major contributing factor to extended periods of growth – enjoyed particularly in the UK, Spain and Ireland; and a refreshing degree of acceptance that certain forms of migration are not only tolerable, but actually desirable, had begun to edge its way into debates that were traditionally dominated by protectionist and often xenophobic voices.

To a considerable extent, the terms of debate shifted from a polarisation between ‘no immigration’ vs. ‘pro immigration’ to a questioning of what might be the ‘right immigration’ vs. the ‘wrong immigration’. In the UK, this shift has been demonstrated by the recent overhaul of all previous immigration and citizenship legislation in the form of two new central policy approaches: the points based system on the one hand, and the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill on the other.

But how committed is the British government to a progressive framework and to what extent will these new policy approaches deliver progressive results? The answer to these questions requires a two-pronged approach. On the one hand looking at the underlying policy objectives of each of the areas of legislation that are being introduced; and on the other hand looking at potential pitfalls that might prevent their objectives from being fully realised.

The points based system itself is primarily a rational attempt to maximise the economic benefits of migration whilst minimising its (apparent) social costs. It is designed to match migration management to evidence-based assessments of the country’s economic capacity to absorb new workers, seeking to attract those migrants who are perceived to be ‘useful’ for the British economy while keeping ‘unwanted’ migrants out.

This is a good start. A carefully managed, flexible immigration system is a laudable goal. It also befits the modern realities of increased global mobility far more than either a total lack of management or an over-bearing and arbitrarily restrictive regime. Indeed, as the pressures of the financial crisis have escalated and unemployment figures risen, the government has been at pains to demonstrate that this is exactly the type of change in labour demand that the points based system was designed to respond to. By ‘tightening up’ the requirements for migrants’ entry, the government will attempt to provide greater opportunities for domestic workers in these difficult economic circumstances. 

Nonetheless, aside from whether or not the administrative capacity of the system will live up to its claim to guarantee the economic benefits of migration (for example, will the methods for measuring ‘skills gaps’ be effective, and indeed will migration provide the steady supply of diverse skills that may be in demand?), the question of representation and expectation management appears a more worrying point to stress. 

The government has apparently decided that representing the points based system in terms of ‘toughness’ will make it more palatable for popular consumption, despite the more progressive agenda at its heart. For example, the new scheme only vaguely resembles its Australian equivalent, yet it has been dressed up in ‘Australian-style’ clothing due to a general public perception that the Australian immigration system is extremely ‘tough’. In addition, political statements and policy documents regarding the new scheme rely heavily on descriptions of ‘hurdles’, ‘barriers’ and even the ‘ever more uncomfortable’ life that unwanted migrants will face in the UK.

This approach, whilst calculated to appease those who have continually accused the Labour government of a lax attitude towards immigration, may eventually be self-defeating. The policy shift represented by the points based system could be harnessed to promote a complementary socio-cultural shift in favour of a better understanding of modern migration realities. Yet by selling the points based system as ‘tough’ rather than ‘rational’, the government continues to treat migration as something external to our societies; it confirms a false perception that the ‘impacts’ of migration can only be effectively managed through border control measures; and it fails to prepare public expectations for a future of continuing and shifting patterns of migration to, from and within the UK.

This then brings us to the second arm of the government’s new policy approach, the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill. This Bill also has progressive elements at its heart. It is largely centred around maximising opportunities for integration and strengthening a shared commitment to UK society. The government has recognised that full citizenship is a progressive goal which can help to ensure that public rights are properly upheld, encourage a sense of responsibility and participation in society, and consequently better serve towards wider social integration, social cohesion and social justice. The new Bill thus complements the points based system by attempting to regulate the path that migrants take through society, guiding them, ultimately, to either achieve full British citizenship or leave the UK.

Yet the measures spelled out in the Bill propose to reinforce restrictions on migrants’ access to benefits; introduce a period of ‘probationary citizenship’; charge migrants a nominal fee to offset their impact on local services; and require that prospective citizens actively earn their right to stay in the UK through a number of tests designed to demonstrate their ‘suitability’ and commitment to our society. Such proposals face similar pitfalls to the points based system: will they achieve their underlying progressive objectives; are some of them misguided; and indeed will the terms in which the government has presented the Bill ultimately be self-defeating?

I fear that the intent as well as the language of these measures risks missing, if not undermining, the ultimate objectives of the Bill: to encourage better integration and ensure a more cohesive society. Not only is the general sentiment of the overall policy exclusionary – alienating, rather than encouraging, newcomers – but strong arguments can be found to show that the approach the government is taking – to offer citizenship as a ‘reward’ for initial efforts at integration, as opposed to leveraging it as a ‘tool’ for more profound, long-term integration – is misguided1. “The rationality of welfare cuts”2  have also been questioned elsewhere. In fact, evidence suggests that two-tiered benefit systems enforce greater social and economic inequalities between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ and ultimately jeopardise the sustainability of the welfare state as a whole.
Whilst it would thus seem that the British government has adopted a changed mindset in terms of what it seeks to achieve with its immigration and citizenship policies – i.e. rational economic management of migration and more effective social integration – the new policy framework will still fall short of these progressive objectives. Managed migration and citizenship policies will continue to be important means for governments to deliver economic prosperity and social justice in the age of ‘hyper-mobility’. But more importantly, governments must now begin to look at how our societies themselves, culturally and structurally, should adapt to these modern realities as well. Policies in this field cannot afford to overlook the bigger picture, and governments cannot afford to continue reinforcing public delusions. Both must be bold enough to face up to the future, one in which migration will be a new norm.

Annie Bruzzone is a policy researcher at Policy Network

A version of this article first appeared in the Italian journal Amministrazione Civile, la rivista del Ministero dell'Interno


1.Jurado, E. February 2008 “Citizenship: tool or reward? The role of citizenship policy in the process of integration” London, Policy Network
2.Brochmann, G. and Dölvik, J.E. 2006 “Is Immigration an enemy of the welfare state”, in D. Papademetriou eds., Europe and its immigrants in the 21st century, Washington, Migration Policy Institute

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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