Getty
Show Hide image

The 4 questions to ask any politician waffling on about immigration

Like - if you're really worried about overcrowding, why don't you ban Brits from moving to London? 

As the general election campaigns kick off, Theresa May signalled that she intends to recommit herself to the Conservatives’ target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands.” It is a target that many – including some of her own colleagues - view as unattainable, undesirable or both. It is no substitute for a policy. And, in contrast to previous elections, where politicians made sweeping pledges, but in practice implemented fairly modest changes to the existing system, Brexit means that radical reform of the UK immigration system is not just possible but inevitable.

The government has refused to say more than it is “looking at a range of options”. Meanwhile, the Labour Party appears hopelessly divided. So here are four key questions for all the parties:

1. What's the point of a migration target?

Essentially scribbled on the back of an envelope, with no serious analysis of either its feasibility or desirability, this target has distorted UK immigration policy since 2010. From either an economic or social point of view, it is almost impossible to justify. If the concern is overall population levels or pressure on public services, then why not target population growth, including births and deaths? (after all, it is children and old people who account for most spending on public services and benefits, not migrant workers). In any case, given the positive fiscal impact of migration, these pressures are mostly a local phenomenon – Scotland is not overcrowded and there is no shortage of school places in Durham. Banning people from moving to London would be much better targeted.

And if the concern is social or cultural – the pace of change – it is bizarre to look at net migration, to include British citizens in the target, and indeed to choose a measure that makes it more attractive to substitute short-term, transient and temporary migrants for permanent ones who are more likely to settle and integrate. Beyond this, there are the practical issues, like the inclusion of students, and the difficulty of managing a target where many of the drivers are not directly under government control. Perhaps most importantly, actually hitting the target would have a substantial economic cost. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimates imply that hitting the target by 2021 – towards the end of the next Parliament – would cost about £6bn a year, compared to its current forecasts.

So the first question is, whether the target stays? If so, what are the specific policy measures that will ensure that, in contrast to the past, it is met? And what taxes will be increased, or what public services cut to fill the fiscal gap?

2. How and when will you end free movement? 

The government has made clear that Brexit means an end to free movement. Its white paper states:

“We will design our immigration system to ensure that we are able to control the numbers of people who come here from the EU. In future, therefore, the Free Movement Directive will no longer apply and the migration of EU nationals will be subject to UK law.”

But it hasn’t said when this will happen – and it has also stated there is likely to be an “implementation period” for the UK’s future economic and trading relationship with the remaining EU. The EU’s position on this is not hard to guess – if we want to avoid a damaging “cliff edge Brexit”, the easiest and simplest option would be for the UK to adopt, de facto or de jure, some version of the “Norway model”, or membership of the European Economic Area. But that would involve keeping free movement more or less as now (including, for example, the payment of in-work benefits to EU citizens here, since of course David Cameron’s renegotiation is now irrelevant).

So the second question is this – are you committed to ending free movement immediately after Brexit? Or do you accept that it might well be in the UK’s economic interest for it to continue for much or all of the next Parliament?

3. Will we still have a system that gives priority to other Europeans?

During the referendum campaign, Vote Leave argued for a “non-discriminatory” system, under which non-UK nationals seeking to migrate to the UK would be treated the same, regardless of their country of origin (with a few relatively minor exceptions, non-EEA/Swiss nationals all currently face the same rules). And if we are indeed going to leave the single market, the broader economic and political rationale for very different immigration arrangements for EU and non-EU migrants to the UK (and UK migrants to the rest of the EU) will in part disappear. But the Immigration Minister recently said “I hope that the negotiations will result in a bespoke system between ourselves and the European Union.”

So the third question is whether, post-Brexit, our immigration system could and should give preferential access to EU citizens? If so, why?

4. What do you actually mean by reducing "low-skilled" migration? 

One issue on which the polling evidence appears clear is that the British public approves of skilled migration – indeed, wants more of it- but not of migration for unskilled jobs. However, as I point out here, most migrants – like most Brits – are neither in high or low skilled jobs. So politicians should not be allowed to get away with saying that they want to reduce low-skilled migration while still attracting the “best and the brightest”.

Do we still want nurses? Teachers? Care workers? Butchers? Plumbers and skilled construction workers? Technicians? If so, do you accept that this means continuing high levels of economic migration? If not, do you accept the negative consequences for business and public services? 

Politicians and commentators have been saying for years "you can't talk about immigration" and "we need an honest debate." Now is the time for all the parties to stop waffling and give us some straight answers; and for the public to actually have a choice over what sort of immigration policy – and by implication, what sort of economy and society – we really want.

 

 

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left