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Peerage and prejudice: why a MigrationWatch representative in the Lords is bad news

David Cameron gives a peerage to Sir Andrew Green of MigrationWatch, which has caused controversy with its use of data, and harsh proposals regarding immigration.

The Prime Minister, for fear of losing more voters to Ukip, is doing everything he can to sound tough on immigration. Moving to the right on this concern is a bad move politically, which I, and many others, have argued won’t work for the Tories in their struggle against Ukip’s rise.

However, ploughing on, David Cameron has today given a peerage to Sir Andrew Green, the founder and chair of MigrationWatch. He will sit in the Lords as a crossbencher, and is one of four figures appointed by Cameron for their “contribution to public life”.

This has caused a mixed reaction, with some – including Nigel Farage and the Times columnist and Tory activist Tim Montgomerie – praising the decision, and others shocked by what they see as the PM’s desperate pandering to Ukip.

MigrationWatch is a think tank founded on the basis that immigration levels in the UK are unacceptably high, which calls for migration to be reduced to the “low tens of thousands”. It has caused controversy in the past with its use of data, and proposals regarding immigration that many view as too harsh.

Here are some reasons why people may feel uncomfortable having a representative of this organisation in the House of Lords, scrutinising policy and influencing legislation:


  • Accused of using dubious data

MigrationWatch is often slammed by its critics for publishing “specious” arguments based on misleading information:

 - A recent example is its report from earlier this year claiming that immigrants have cost UK taxpayers more than £22m a day for 17 years. This conclusion was based on figures from UCL. But academics at the University vociferously disagreed with this conclusion; they said the report was, “based on a serious misinterpretation of the methodology we have used in our work, which leads to fundamental mistakes that invalidate their calculations”.

 - Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, successfully complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) this year that articles about the tax paid by Eastern European migrants in the Telegraph and Mail based on MigrationWatch statistics were inaccurate. Both papers amended their articles.

 - An older example is its 2007 paper on the impact of immigration per head, stating that immigration merely benefited the population by 4p per week: the equivalent of “a Mars Bar a month”. This was based on incorrect data, and was therefore an underestimation of the economic benefit of immigration. It amended the paper, but stood by “the thrust” of its conclusions.


  • The PCC ruling against the PM’s article, seen by some as a “rehash” of MigrationWatch statements

The Prime Minister suffered severe embarrassment earlier this year when the Press Complaints Commission ruled an article he had contributed to the Telegraph breached the editor’s code of practice.

Cameron made the erroneous statement: “while most new jobs used to go to foreign workers, in the past year more than three quarters have gone to British workers.”

It was a claim based on ONS figures relating to net changes in employment, not “new jobs”, and the PPC said it “significantly misrepresented” official statistics.


  • Calls for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights

In 2006, MigrationWatch called the UK’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights “an attraction for terrorists to operate in and from Britain, secure in the knowledge that, even if convicted, they can never be deported and that, if they come under suspicion, they cannot be effectively detained”, advocating what some Conservative party figures are currently, and controversially, discussing.

Rebutting the argument made by those in favour of the Convention that no one should be subjected to torture, MigrationWatch said in the report that terrorists have “been given fair warning”.

I asked if the organisation still holds its position on this, and a spokesperson told me it "favours a UK Bill of Rights, so yes".


  • Hostility towards the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to grant two homosexual asylum seekers asylum

In 2010, the organisation put out a briefing paper following the Supreme Court’s decision, warning about the precedent it sets, and with rather dubious statements about our country’s approach to gay people:

It is understood that in some 80 countries the commission of homosexual acts is still a criminal offence. But the underlying assumption of the Supreme Court's judgment seems to be that if an asylum seeker professes himself unwilling to live discreetly as a homosexual in his home country and the evidence shows that that country's political and social system falls short of the degree of openness enjoyed by the population of the United Kingdom, then he is entitled to asylum here.


  • Past controversy

Though it's no longer the opinion of the organisation, back in 2004, MigrationWatch released a paper calling for HIV testing for potential immigrants, saying Britain should “follow suit without delay” countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand that use such a system. At the time, HIV testing to restrict access to Britain was criticised by the all-party parliamentary group on AIDS in 2003:

It would be in breach of international obligations and human rights to give mandatory HIV tests to asylum seekers upon entry and in addition there is no evidence to support that such a policy would be effective at protecting the public health.

This is notable, as Nigel Farage has recently caused outrage by calling to bar migrants with HIV.

A spokesperson told me the organisation doesn't delete past reports from its website, even if they no longer represent its views, which is why the 2004 HIV-related report remains online.

Here is MigrationWatch's statement on the peerage:

In the early years there was widespread reluctance to discuss the issue at all but MigrationWatch has worked steadily to improve public understanding of the impact of the very high levels of net migration of the past 15 years. Under Sir Andrew's guiding hand MigrationWatch has undeniably become a leading voice in a very necessary debate. 

Update, 27 October, 2014: This story originally referred to David Cameron being accused of "rehashing" statistics from Migrationwatch in his article for the Daily Telegraph. This was not accurate: the PCC ruled that the prime minister "significantly misrepresented" official statistics about migration, not MigrationWatch research. The article has been amended accordingly.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.