The principles of migration policy

Following this week's IPPR paper on the subject, Jill Rutter looks at the principles of migration policy.

Those of us disillusioned by this week’s empty rhetoric from Eric Pickles may take some consolation from a new think piece on migration principles from the Labour-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research.

The paper, authored by Sarah Mulley and Matt Cavanagh, a former special adviser on immigration, aims to provoke debate about the core principles or ‘tests’ that should underpin migration policy in the UK.

As many commentators would argue migration policy from all recent governments has been reactive and driven by the need to appease public opinion, a more principled and pro-active approach is sorely needed.

Many will disagree with the principles outlined in the IPPR paper, but this thoughtful piece is a welcome addition to a policy area largely characterised by its absence of principles.

The IPPR paper sets out ten principles on which migration policy should be based. It needs to be established in a democratic manner and governed by the rule of law. Migration policy should be underpinned by human rights and equality.

The paper also argues for migration policy to focus on delivering a competent immigration system, and one not subject to operational disasters, for example, missing overseas students, that play so badly with public opinion.

Four of the principles in the IPPR paper focus on the costs, benefits and distributional effects of migration, with the paper arguing migration policy should aim to increase net economic and fiscal benefits, both in the UK and globally, by looking at the effects of brain drain and remittance incomes on developing countries.

The final two principles focus on the migratory movement itself, with Cavanagh and Mulley arguing policy must respond to the scale of migration – that numbers matter. Finally, they make a plea for political honesty as a core principle, stating governments should not promise to stem migration flows they cannot hope to control.

The challenge now – for IPPR and hopefully for Labour – is to translate these principles into policy and practice. It will be difficult to apply some of these principles to the most intractable immigration problems confronting government such as undocumented migration and asylum determination in situations of mixed migratory movements.

Previous Labour administrations failed to make much progress on asylum. We still have an asylum system characterised by poor quality decision-making – a quarter of initial decisions are overturned in appeal – and we largely failure to remove those at the end of the asylum process. It will also be difficult to apply some of these principles to policy when UK Border Agency Funding is being cut. Competent immigration control is not cheap.

But perhaps the biggest question raised by the IPPR paper is how governments should react when migration principles cut across each other. This is an area the IPPR paper fails to address.

Much of migration policy is about conflicting interests – the human rights of individual migrants versus the rights of receiving communities. The IPPR paper asserts human rights should underpin migration policy, but does not develop this argument. Yet human rights instruments have been used to strike out immigration legislation.

Legislation that has passed democratically through Parliament often renders asylum overstayers destitute, yet food and shelter are surely a basic human right. Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to family life, is sometimes used by judges to halt the removal of foreign national prisoners from the UK.

At a time when human right has become a dirty word of the political lexicon and the tabloid press, we need a much more mature debate on this issue. The task for Labour thinkers is to consider human rights policy.

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