The political establishment’s poor use of evidence on immigration

Since the Eastleigh by-election immigration has consistently been in the news, with all three parties making significant policy interventions. Each party seems to be trying to outdo each other with rhetoric on how they’re going to crack down on migrants abusing public services, how immigration is out of control and how they don't believe the official estimates and forecasts.

George Disney is a PhD Student researching methods to improve immigration estimates

Since the Eastleigh by-election immigration has consistently been in the news, with all three parties making significant policy interventions.

Each party seems to be trying to outdo each other with rhetoric on how they’re going to crack down on migrants abusing public services, how immigration is out of control and how they don’t believe the official estimates and forecasts.

However the whole debate is based on trying to meet a target – net migration – that no government could ever claim to have any control over.

On top of this the government are using official immigration statistics in a way that increases uncertainty over the level of immigration to the UK and their policy interventions are both wrongheaded and impossible to measure the success of.

It’s about time politicians started conducting the debate in a sensible manner based on good evidence and were honest about their reasons for tacking to the right in a way that risks increasing social tension and xenophobia.

In his high profile speech on immigration, the prime minister set out new restrictions on access to social housing, the NHS and welfare for new immigrants. These are the policy levers that David Cameron intends to use to meet his immigration target of “bringing down net migration to the tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands by the end of the parliament”.

However in setting this target, the government has picked a measure over which they have little to no control, and every time they use a change in this number to assert that they are “getting immigration under control” they are either misguided at best or dishonest at worst.

Let me explain why: net migration is the difference between immigration and emigration; but the government have no control whatsoever over most of this. They can’t control emigration and they can only exert influence on immigration from nationals whose citizenship is from outside the EU, due to the freedom of movement of EU nationals.

If the target is met, it could be as a result of more people leaving the UK; something that a government cannot possibly claim to have direct control over. Or it could be because less British nationals are returning to the UK after a period of living abroad.

Quite simply, a reduction (or increase) in net migration is achieved by chance rather than by design. Getting control over immigration, their explicitly stated aim, cannot be achieved when net migration is their target.

The government have consistently attacked Labour for their poor forecast of Eastern European immigrants coming to the UK following the EUs expansion in 2004. The reporting of this forecast in the newspapers and how it has been spun by politicians has eroded trust in the government about their immigration estimates.

But in their choice of net migration as their main target, the Conservatives are also increasing the level of uncertainty in official estimates of immigration. This is because immigration and emigration are both estimated using a survey, the International Passenger Survey. If they just reported immigration and emigration separately we could have more confidence in their estimates.

Finally, there is absolutely no way of knowing if the government’s tightening up of conditionality and access to public services, announced in the PM’s speech, will affect the level of immigration, let alone net immigration, and there is no way of attributing any change to yesterday’s particular policy announcements.

On top of this, it is debateable whether there are substantial migrants who are ‘abusing’ our public housing, health service or welfare system. Limiting access to the council house waiting list for new arrivals is only going to limit access to a small proportion of new arrivals, and therefore couldn’t possibly act as a deterrent to the tens of thousands of immigrants that the government wants to stay away.

Through the use of a target that the government have little control over, their poor use of the data available and the lack of evidence linking increasing conditionality over public services to a reduction in immigration and their actually being a problem of abuse, the government have just made a major policy announcement based on very bad science.

One would be forgiven for suspecting that this is not a considered policy to tackle a pressing social problem, but a political party dancing to the tune of the right-wing UK Independence Party.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.