MRN’s Initial Analysis of the Immigration White paper

Home Office white paper shows us where the battles for rights-based immigration policies will be fought in the future.

The government’s long-awaited white paper on future immigration, finally made available in the days before Christmas, contained very few surprises. The headline idea – that a single system facilitating the recruitment of migrant workers would operate for all nationalities – had already been presented few months early in a set of recommendations prepared by the economists who made up the independent panel of economists originally set up by the Labour Government, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

The white paper accepts this idea wholesale, together with the MAC’s argument that labour migration should be restricted to workers who fit in with notions of being ‘highly-skilled’. The  grounds for this is that this group is believed to make a greater contribution to labour force productivity.  There was immediate concern among employers operating in areas like agriculture and food processing, social care, hospitality and construction that they would be cut off from sources which have been supplying their labour needs for the last few decades. The message to them from the MAC, reiterated by the government, was that they should do more to make themselves attractive to youngsters entering the labour market by offering higher wages and better workplace training. But with investment in manufacturing industry in steep decline and austerity continuing to chock services in the public sector no one is expecting these sectors to break from their dependency on the abundant supply of low-wage workers which has been the norm for decades.

On the face of it, this was presented as a package that would finally meet the long unfulfilled promise to push back on the numbers entering the UK, getting at least a little bit closer to the target of net migration in the ‘tens of thousands’. The people who were allowed into the country would be limited to a select group made up of ‘the brightest and the best’ – to quote Theresa May’s foreword to the white paper – with all others being given a firm ‘no’ by visa officer’s based in British consulates and high commissions across the world.

Tough for migrants but softer for employers

But there is a paradox at the heart of the government’s strategy. Whilst one strand of proposals clearly fall into the category of “get tough” with the immigrants moving across borders, another is proposing significant liberalising measures intended to benefit the forces in the economy which have built the exploitation of the talents of migrant labour into their business plans. This raises questions as to whether the government really will be able to achieve the primary goal it has set for its policies – bringing about a reduction in the number of migrants coming to live and work in the country. It is  worth mentioning the points that are likely to be causing problems for the government on this score, in anticipation of the day when a future prime minister has to explain to baffled British voters why she or he has once again failed to get immigration under their firm control.

Firstly, the formal measure of who qualifies as a skilled person is set at RQF 3-5 level (A level or equivalent) as opposed to the current standard (for non-EU nationals) of RQF level 6- 8 (university degree level).  There are an awful lot of people in the world today who qualify as skilled according to this criterion, and a growing number of them are in countries considered to be a part of the developing world.

According to the calculations of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in 2015 there were 1.43 billion people in the world educated to ‘upper secondary school’ level – a figure set to rise to nearly 2 billion by 2030.[1] The fastest areas of growth in these numbers are the parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. These are all regions in which great strides in the educational attainment of young people is often accompanied by sluggish growth in employment opportunities commensurate with skill levels.  It is reasonable to expect that a skill-based immigration scheme will raise hopes among the large cohort of formally qualified young people that that their investment in their education will pay off in the form of great opportunities to migrate.

If that point deals with the sheer size of the pool of prospective migrants a second set of reasons for thinking that migration might not be contained at the low levels that governments have encouraged people to hope for lies in considering the ways in which the policy paper proposes to manage the demand for migrant workers among UK employers. Part of this will be done by excluding nationals of countries considered to pose risks to the integrity of immigration management; more on this below. The more immediate barrier will exist in the form of a requirement for a salary level, which the paper suggests will be in the order of £30,000 per year.

Again, employers have not been slow in complaining that a salary of this level does not bear much of a relationship to what the UK labour market expects to pay for whole categories for its skilled workers, particularly young people entering the labour market and looking for their first jobs. The public sector in turn makes the powerful point that some of the most urgent staff shortages it is facing involve skilled posts in health and social care and education, where the £30,000 salary mark is well below what employers can afford to pay.

This is a problem which is even more acute for employers operating in the nations and regions outside the prosperous south-east. The devolved governments and the executive mayors of the London regions can be expected to push against rules that create disadvantages for the enterprises they are supporting in their parts of the UK. Political controversy on these matters is likely to be destabilising for the management structures that will be put in place to implement the new approach to immigration management. The white paper makes the claim that the details of its policies will consider the special needs of the devolved nations and the English regions.  Expect the interests based in these places to make strong cases in the future for special concessions allowing the recruitment of migrants at salary levels below the £30,000 mark, weakening the effect of this as a barrier to high numbers of migrants.

The government feels that it has some scope for responding to statistical evidence that migration is continuing at a relatively high volume by being to assure people that, whilst there might be a lot of newcomers arriving in the country, at least this time we can be sure that they are the right people.  The white paper states that this will be done by restricting opportunities to migrate to people who are citizens of countries that are considered to be “high risk”.

We can expect controversy with regard to the conceptions of “high risk” and “low risk” as it applies to particular nationalities.  Given exactly who those nationalities are, the accusation that racism continues to play a key role in shaping immigration policy is as salient as ever.

One of the selling points for the ending of free movement rights for EU nationals was that it would provide the opportunity to end a bias against citizens of non-EU countries who were subjected to a much greater range of impediments to migration to the UK.  The proprietors of a number of ethnic minority business, particularly in the restaurant sector, bought into the idea that ending free movement rights would open up a new, fairer regime which would allow them to bring staff from Bangladesh and other Asian countries to fill vacancies for chefs and other crucial staff.  Hopes on this score are likely to be disappointed if the idea of migration risk is allowed to modify the claim that the new system will treat citizens of all countries the same with respect to the issue of visas.

The idea of some countries presenting a higher risk to the integrity of the immigration control system has been present since the current form of regulation was put in place by the 1971 Immigration Act.  A report published by the Commission for Racial Equality in 1985[2] found that visa and other immigration officials, nominally charged with dealing with all cases on their merits, operated with a concept of ‘pressure to migrate’ countries.  This rather unsophisticated notion came down to meaning no more than that a relatively high proportion of citizens of that country were inclined to seek opportunities to live and work abroad.  Critics of its utility as a guide to immigration management pointed out that it could be applied as much to citizens of the United States, Australia, or Britain itself on the basis of the evidence that large numbers of their citizens lived and worked outside their home nations.  But there was little evidence that a young Australian wishing to spend a period of time working in the UK would encounter any of the difficulties that a young Bangladeshi person would face.

Notions of risk arising from perceptions of ‘pressure to migrate’ drove immigration controls as they applied to non-EU nationals across all decades from the 1970s onwards.  It has consistently produced much higher refusal rates for citizens of countries outside the small number of highly developed nations. This extends to applicants who are able to adduce evidence of professional and vocational skills who have demonstrated that they fit the requirements of the rules on all substantial points.  What prejudices their applications is the fact that they come from a country which is considered to instil into its citizens an especially high motive to leave and remain abroad.  The white paper compounds the suspicion that the new system will continue to discriminate against applicants who come countries considered less developed than the UK by providing a list of countries whose nationals are considered ‘low-risk’ and therefore eligible to use the faster e-gate facilities at ports of entry which consists of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the United States of America, Singapore and South Korea. It seems likely that presumptions of risk which have produced this group of privileged nationals will be reproduced at other parts of the control regime.

Benefits for business

A third reason for believing that the white paper’s proposals will make life slightly easier for the large numbers of employers who will find themselves having to comply with immigration regulations do not seem entirely consistent with the insistence that the management of migration will be rigorous.  The issue here is that the tens of thousands of often small businesses that are currently employing EU migrant staff under the terms of the no-hassle provisions governing the free movement of workers will find themselves having to go through the rigmarole of registering with the Home Office to become licensed sponsors. This is currently a very expensive and bureaucratic procedure which only a company with a large HR department would consider doing.  The white paper seems to envision an arrangement where ‘umbrella bodies’ – presumably representative trade organisations or labour recruitment agencies – could assume the sponsorship role and all the reporting and liaison with the Home Office that the system entails.  The clunky obligation to scrap the resident labour market test will also be scrapped, together with the cap on the numbers of migrants to be admitted. Expect to see an increase in entrepreneurial activities on the part of labour market agencies in the field of recruitment and the provision of agency staff who will be offering businesses their talents as the managers of their migrant worker needs.

So, the scheme outlined in the policy paper does not seem likely to dampen down on the volume of migration as such.  The abundance of people across the planet with both the formal qualifications that make them eligible to enter the UK under the terms of these policies, together with the need of businesses and public services for a workforce which is hard to find at home, paint a picture for the future which connects a high supply of people willing to migrate to a high number of people wanting to employ them.

In these circumstances we predict that the stronger control mechanism as far as depressing numbers are concerned in these circumstances will not be the restriction of migration to RQF 3-5 skill levels or the £30,000 salary (or whatever figure is finally decided on) but what will amount to impediments on the migration skilled people from developing countries owing the perception of risk being associated with this group.  A few charmed Asian countries out on the Pacific rim might be able to circumvent the worst of these barriers, effectively being granted the ‘honorary white’ status that apartheid South Africa extended to investors from high income countries, but in the great majority of cases the citizens of the nations of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean will be found at the back of the queue when it comes to visas being granted to workers.

Digital checking and after-entry controls

So, continue to expect high volumes of migration in the years ahead, with most of the opportunities to benefit from the system going to citizens of higher income countries.  Will the British public be satisfied with this arrangement?  Don’t be so sure.  The experiences around the arrival of large numbers of nationals of the new EU member states who arrived in the UK from 2004 onwards showed the large capacity of native citizens with grievances to make unwelcome ‘others’ out of just about anyone.  If the demand for immigration is met mainly from people from higher income countries the government is still likely to have to face criticism for its high-volume immigration numbers.

In anticipation of this the white paper reverts to the strategy attempted by David Blunkett back in the early noughties when as Home Secretary he had to face criticism for letting too many migrants in.  Blunkett tried to face this down with a rhetoric of being ‘as tough as old boots’ in his department’s oversight of immigrants admitted as workers, promising ruthless surveillance of all their movements and a capacity on the part of the state agencies to reach down and grab and deport anyone who was not performing to the standards being set for them.  Biometric ID cards generating digital data combined with comprehensive databases containing all the information needed to police the system was the order of the day back in this earlier period as well.

The same pious hopes for migration managed through “digital delivery” are set out in this latest white paper.  A lot of hopes are pinned on what is describes as a “new digital checking service” which will work with procedures that allocate an “individual immigration status” as the basis of its system of control.  With this in place all of the people playing a role in keeping migrant populations under surveillance – employers, landlords, local authorities and other public service providers – will be able to communicate with the Home Office in something close to real time to make sure individuals are kept shepherded into the places where they are supposed to be, or alternatively, ejected from the UK altogether.

This, of course, is essentially the system which gave us the hostile environment and the scandal of the monstrous treatment of people from the Windrush generation and their families.  What was proven during the days when that horror story was coming across in the news headlines is that mega-capacity information systems are more than just the possessors of unbiased facts: they are also the place where facts are fabricated and dispersed across ever wider networks and which then become the basis for escalating cycles of punitive actions which end up depriving people of their rights and entitlements. In the case of the Windrush people the sequences of rights denial got underway because the data records failed to include information about the dates of entry of people who had come into the country as children forty or more years previously. This crucial absence led to databases attributing the status of illegality to all subsequent activity as workers, living in rented accommodation, and the receipt of healthcare and social security entitlements. Hundreds of people seem to have been denied the right to live in the country and were either deported or barred from re-entry after going on holidays abroad.

The policy paper does not provide any reflection on the Windrush debacle.  The role its current IT systems played in magnifying the errors of a cumbersome and bureaucratic system pass entirely without remark. Instead the chapter 9 section on ‘digital delivery’ blithely describes plans for a system in which “…. the latest digital technology … [will]…. improve customer experience, increase security and detect abuse.”   It makes the bold claim that;

The future system will be user and business friendly. It will make greater use of existing data across government to reduce the burden of proof we place on applicants, as well as those wishing to offer employment or study opportunities.

But, more ominously, it goes on to say:

The smarter use of data will allow for more targeted interventions to prevent those who would seek to abuse the system from doing so. This will inform the deployment of resources throughout the entire immigration system.

These are claims for an IT-based solution to the management and sharing of information about hundreds of thousands of people which the paper admits is not yet in existence. The record of civil service departments to procure grand-scale computer systems adequate to the task administrative task which government demands of them is not impressive.   What we do know is that plans for digital services have been trialled visa applications to a French firm, Sopra Steria, which, according to a report in the Financial Times in December  “… left applicants at risk of deportation after being unable to book appointments, having to travel miles to access facilities, and being misinformed by staff.” The FT cites an absence of “service points” in a number of large towns and cities, like Leeds and Sheffield, and a high level of fees to access procedures. These can be in the region of £60 for the no-frills version and rising to £200-600 for so-called premium services.  For people using the latter the Home and Sopra Steria have admitted not being able to deliver to the advertised standards.

The civil liberties campaign organisation, Liberty, has set out its concerns about the sharing of information through digital systems. It sees in this  the danger of “… a new carve-out in the Data Protection Act [which] will let the Home Office and other data controllers disregard their data protection obligations when they process data for ‘the maintenance of effective immigration control’. This will make “secret data-sharing for immigration enforcement purposes even easier.”

As the Windrush scandal showed, these are not just matters of the sort of glitches that show up whenever a beta version of a new data-sharing project is being experimented with.  The chronic incapacity of the immigration authorities to meet that standards which ministers assure us will be routine in the day-to-day operation of control systems has been the great, reoccurring problem for the management of the movement of people for decades.  Adopting regulatory measures that aim to achieve utterly unrealistic targets for controls, such as bringing down net migration to the tens of thousands, combined with administration by a cumbersome bureaucracy responsible for huge numbers of poor decisions which are then widely shared with other departments and agencies through data-sharing procedures have been the reasons why the hostile environment has produced so many troubled outcomes and violations of human rights. A further horror arises from the fact that many of those whose applications are refused are now at risk of being branded as ‘criminals’ under the provisions of the most recent immigration acts, if they continue with their efforts to work or rent accommodation. All-in-all, the cost of finding that the computer has said ‘no’ to your application has been ramped up to extraordinary heights.

Root causes of the crisis of immigration policy

The white paper provides no reassurance that the government and the Home Office has understood the root causes of the crisis in immigration policy across the past twenty years.  It sketches out an edifice for control regulations and practices which are, to all intents and purposes, identical to the failed measures which have been implemented in response to the growth in immigration numbers which began in the mid-1990s. The difference is that this time around the consequences of Brexit and the ending of freedom of movement will mean that vastly larger numbers of people will find themselves having to navigate a system which has shown itself such a conspicuous failure at all times in the past.

Almost every attempt at immigration policy has failed during this time because politicians and senior civil servants running the system have adopted the view that migrants are a troublesome, slippery segment of the population who are working continually to subvert all efforts to manage their presence and who are seeking things from their residence in the UK – healthcare, welfare benefits, public housing, etc – on which they have no moral claim.  Containing this unruly flow of people requires regulations that have to be renewed constantly in order to deal with loopholes which migrants are exploiting to buttress their position.  It is seen as legitimate that ever greater demands be placed on people to validate their claims to a status by producing volumes of documentary evidence that can go back for decades.  The ‘culture of suspicion’ which critics have shown to be endemic at all the points where migrants have to interface with the authorities has proven unshakable and had led directly to the need for a strident effort on the part of the newcomers to push back and resist in order to obtain any degree of security of status.

There is no need to read between the lines to see the ways in which the errors of the past are being reproduced for the future.  Because of this we confidently predict the failure of any government enacting measures based on this white paper to bring about an orderly management of migration in a manner that will convince ordinary British citizens that they are under no threat from the movement of people across national borders.

Only an immigration policy that has at its heart a ‘rights-based’ approach to the issue has any chance of putting in place a system which reconciles the palpable need of our modern economy and society to be open to migration.  The distance between the issues advocated for in the white paper and the human rights which need to be available to all migrants will show itself to be the measure of the multiple failures which we can expect to see continuing into the future. If the authorities prove incapable to learning from their mistakes it will be down to civil society organisations which are closer to the realities of migration in the UK to set out the type of policies which are truly needed to facilitate human management of the movement of people.

[1] Source: ‘Our World in Data: The Rise of Education,

[2] Immigration control procedures : report of a formal investigation London : Commission for Racial Equality, 1985.

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