What would a progressive immigration policy look like?

The Conservatives' net migration target is wrong but the centre-left cannot ignore the question of numbers.

Eric Pickles’s comments about Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, followed by today’s intervention by Migration Watch on the same issue, have sparked another lively media debate about migration policy.

The government have based their migration policy on a target to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year, one they seem likely to miss, not least because they cannot limit migration from elsewhere in the EU. Ed Miliband has suggested that Labour’s approach to migration will go beyond the confines of immigration rules (as it must, in light of EU migration). His interventions in the debate have focused on how economic and integration policy can respond to migration.

But underneath the regular political and policy arguments lies a more fundamental debate about what migration policy should be seeking to achieve. The Conservatives’ answer is that the purpose of migration policy is to reduce net migration. That is appealingly simple, but bad policy and bad politics.So what might a centre-left alternative look like?

The first thing to say is that the most fundamental responsibility of governments of all political hues should be to ensure that migration policy is democratically accountable, governed by the rule of law (including human rights law), and effectively implemented. Of course, this is easier said than done, and is sometimes uncomfortable for those on the left, involving as it does both difficult conversations with the public and highly sensitive decisions about individual cases involving vulnerable people.

Beyond this very basic responsibility, there is plenty of room for debate about what governments should try to achieve with migration policy. Many people would agree that one important objective should be to secure economic benefits for the UK. Indeed, this was arguably the driving motivation behind much of Labour’s immigration policy when in government, and has been a key criticism of the coalition’s approach.

But a centre-left or progressive migration policy must aim to do more than simply respond to the needs of business. Migration policy must be part of a strategy to form the economy we want, not just a tool to service the needs of the one that we have. A progressive migration policy must also seek to manage the cultural and social impacts of migration, take particular care to avoid increasing inequality, and pay particular attention to the impacts on vulnerable groups. This means tackling migration’s impacts not only through immigration rules, but also through wider social policy. Labour did not do enough of this in government, particularly in response to rapid migration from Poland and other countries after 2004.

However, there is a risk that this kind of approach to migration policy loses touch with the core metric that concerns the public: the impact of policy on migration flows. This was the trap that Labour fell into after 2004, when dramatic increases in immigration exposed a policy approach that seemed to the public to be much to laissez-faire on the issue of numbers.

The Conservatives' net migration target is wrong (not least because it over-simplifies and ignores much about migration flows that is important), but that does not mean that anyone in the migration debate can ignore the question of numbers. It is not enough to set immigration rules and then take no view on the pace and pattern of migration flows that result. Even those who believe that migration has generally been a good thing for the UK should accept that this does not mean that more migration would necessarily be even better: both costs and benefits are non-linear.

People on all sides of the immigration debate should agree that accurate and timely data on the scale, nature and pattern of migration flows are essential for good policymaking. This data is something the UK currently lacks, which makes the current debate about net migration levels even less productive. It is also reasonable to expect politicians and policymakers to respond quickly to rapid changes in migration. The right response will not always be about the immigration rules (indeed, as with EU migration, there are many circumstances when it cannot be), but the public are right to expect government to take steps to manage the impacts of migration.

The right approach to migration policy is necessarily more complicated then the Conservative’s net migration target. But it is also common sense: have a democratic debate, set fair rules and enforce them, increase the benefits (economic and social) of migration while managing the costs, pay attention to impacts on the most vulnerable, and keep a weather eye on the numbers.

The devil is in the detail, of course, but perhaps if everyone in the migration debate could agree on the question, we would get better answers.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR

She tweets as @sarahmulley

Home Secretary Theresa May makes a speech on immigration at Policy Exchange on December 12, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

Photo: Getty
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.