Managing Britain’s People Flow

David Blunkett Bob Rowthorn Trevor Phillips Ben Page
22 October 2003

In May 2003 openDemocracy launched ‘People Flow’, an international debate about the movement of people. Its intention was to reverse the way that migration and asylum are seen, especially in Europe, and to propose another vision and a different policy approach.

The stereotypical view is that the incoming of foreign people is a problem that the host country has to deal with. Its underlying assumption is that it is normal for people to live in their native countries and abnormal for them to move.

Theo Veenkamp, Tom Bentley and Alessandra Buonfino, the three authors of People Flow (a Demos/openDemocracy pamphlet), took as their starting-point the opposite assumption. They argued that the large-scale movement of people from country-to-country around the world is now a permanent, everyday reality. Once this is understood, the incoming of migrants and asylum-seekers can no longer be seen as an exceptional problem to be solved by emergency measures. Instead, migration needs to be managed as an overall process on an international scale. National policies must also be designed accordingly – for the long term. The first part of the People Flow debate was summed up by Veenkamp in August.

To open a second phase of the debate openDemocracy is fortunate to be able to co-operate with the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr). ippr has been leading policy-relevant research and analysis in the area of asylum and migration since the mid-1990s. In 2000 Sarah Spencer was seconded to the Home Office to work on Migration: An economic and social analysis. This ground-breaking report pulled together the existing theory and evidence on the economic and social impacts of migration and has formed the basis for the development of policies of ‘managed migration’ in the United Kingdom. As these policies have been developed, however, the public and political debate about migration in the UK has become increasingly polarised between those who are unwilling to accept that migration brings benefits and those who deny it brings costs.

In the context of this divisive, arid debate and the emerging differences of approach on the political left about migration issues, Heaven Crawley, associate director of ippr and head of its migration and equalities programme organised and ran a special meeting at the British Labour Party’s conference in Bournemouth in September 2003.

She invited David Blunkett to be the keynote speaker. Blunkett, member of parliament (MP) for Sheffield Brightside, is currently the British Home Secretary, in charge of internal affairs, a position he took up at the beginning of the Labour Party’s second term of government in June 2001.

Crawley asked him to explain the thinking behind the legislation he is currently introducing into the United Kingdom. What follows is an edited version of his speech and the discussion that followed.

The event began with an introduction to public understanding of the issues by Ben Page, director of MORI Social Research Institute. He provides an overview of current public attitudes in Britain to asylum and migration based on findings from a research study conducted by MORI for the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in April-May 2002.

Bob Rowthorn, professor of economics at the University of Cambridge, who opposes mass immigration into Britain (Prospect, February 2003) and Trevor Phillips, chair of Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), then respond to Blunkett.

In Crawley’s words: “ippr is particularly concerned with the underlying causes of forced migration. In Britain, the public debate about asylum and migration has not only become polarised and over-simplified but has come to embody many other concerns: national identity, security, citizenship, Britain’s place in the world and its relationship with other countries. There is no doubt that migration is here to stay but a serious, objective and balanced public debate about how best it can be managed is possible only if those with different political opinions about the benefits and costs of migration engage directly with one another”.

Public opinion in Britain about immigration, asylum, multiculturalism and citizenship presents a fascinating mosaic of attitudes.

We hope the material that follows, drawn from the ippr meeting, will help further such a debate. Please add your views and tell your friends.

Ben Page: What are British attitudes towards immigrants?

There has been a dramatic change in British public opinion on migration in the last three years. It was only then that people started to name race and immigration issues as among their main concerns.

Graph showing the Media Hype

Graph 1

Why the change? In Graph 1, if public opinion (yellow line) is plotted against government data on decisions about asylum applications (red line), we see that public concern does broadly correlate with that curve. This doesn’t explain how much of that concern is the result of media hype, and how much is based on the reality of actual experience; but the rise in concern does generally match the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain.

This is an extremely divisive issue. Graph 2 depicts the views of different social groups, in terms both of their social class and social values. The overall figure reveals that around 60% of people say that there are too many immigrants in Britain.

Graph showing Immigrants in Britain

Graph 2

Strikingly, only around 10% of ‘liberal intellectuals’ share this sentiment; but among people living in deprived inner-city areas – often largely white, monoglot areas – as many as 90% agree with it.

There are huge differences across Britain on this issue. One of the biggest drivers of difference in attitude is education. People with university degrees are in general much less likely to think that there are too many immigrants; those who have no qualifications tend to endorse the proposition.

Yet most people, despite being rather negative about asylum and immigration, still believe that there are good relations between people of different backgrounds. As Graph 3 indicates, 60% in the white community, and nearly 70% black and ethnic minority (BME) people say that. At the same time, people in both groups are likely to say that there are too many immigrants.

Attitudes of ethnicity

Graph 3

The perspective of the local quality of life, rather than the national picture, is relevant here. When researchers ask people what they consider important in making a place good to live in, Graph 4 suggests that race relations and immigration don’t really feature at a local level.

Graph showing life in local communities

Graph 4

Only when these issues are addressed on a national basis do people begin to regard them as significant; locally, they are preoccupied mostly with ‘liveability factors’ – young people, clean streets, safety.

The regional analysis in Graph 5 adds further interest to the picture. It is noticeable that people who are most likely to disagree that it is a good thing that Britain is a multicultural or multiracial country live in mostly white areas. 20% of Britons disagree that it is a good thing that Britain is multiracial; in the north-east and south-west of England, rather more do; in London only 5% do. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that much genuine concern about asylum-seekers is felt in areas where few asylum-seekers exist or have ever existed.

Graph showing Britain as a mulicultural society?

Graph 5

Most people want to see newer arrivals better integrated (Graph 6). 77% of people agree that there should be citizenship lessons for new arrivals; this includes 58% of ethnic minority people. 77% say that immigrants to Britain who don’t speak English should be made to learn the language; and this figure is almost exactly the same among ethnic minority groups (EMG).

Graph showing people that like to have lessons

Graph 6

These findings raise questions about common values, and attitudes that white and black ethnic minority groups share. But at the same time, it seems that much of the concern that people express is only tenuously based on their own direct experience. It is based on something else. Concern is directly related to what others, including the media say. So how the debate is framed remains of crucial importance.

David Blunkett: Legislating a policy that works

A combination of clear rules, firm management and cooperation with partner governments and international agencies is at the heart of the British government’s migration strategy since 2001, explains its chief architect.

When I moved from the then Ministry of Education and Employment to the Home Office after the 2001 election, I wanted to ensure that we had a cohesive and comprehensive policy towards nationality, immigration and asylum. We sought a balance between what we needed, and wanted, to do – welcoming people here legally and in a managed way – with the ability to persuade people in their communities. We needed them to be confident that we could manage this process and that they had nothing to fear from people who enter this country from different places, cultures and backgrounds.

So a few days after the Labour Party won its second successive general election victory in June 2001, I wrote in the Sunday Times that asylum would be one of our biggest challenges. I had no idea at the time that the numbers coming into Europe, and particularly to the UK, were going to rise over the next two years, as Ben Page’s Graph 1 on the number of recent asylum decisions illustrates.

But even at that time, I had two major reasons for arguing for the centrality of this issue. First, the government had to demonstrate that we have a grip on our own border controls, and to be seen to be able to manage migration. Second, in order to secure the inward immigration we need economically, but also socially and culturally, we have to win people over to the idea of expanding work permits.

This means we have to win people over, in terms of their own security, confidence and stability: because people who are confident, people who do not fear, people who embrace difference, are going to welcome people of different backgrounds, cultures and religions into their communities. Not only that, but they are also more receptive to progressive politics and to a hopeful vision of the world.

Little could be more crucial therefore than ensuring people are able to hear this message and to understand it. We have to address it in a way that strikes a balance. Simply shouting at people, abusing them or telling them that they’re stupid won’t actually make an inch of a difference, even if it makes us feel better.

Ben Page’s statistics indicate that we do not invent the feelings people have. They have them, and they can be exploited, as the British National Party (BNP) do very effectively – indeed, in a much more sophisticated fashion than ever before. So we in government also have to be more sophisticated. Ours must be a balanced, rational approach which clearly articulates what we’re doing.

Night after night in the summer of 2001, and again in the summer of 2002, television pictures showed people from Sangatte, on the north-west coast of France, coming through the Channel Tunnel, waiting to get into freight terminals and the carriages of freight trains in order to try to cross into Britain. It was clear to me that the Sangatte camp was a magnet we had to close down, and that (with the agreement of the French authorities) we had to secure the closure of those freight depots and block out this method of clandestine entry. It was also clear to me that we had to move our border controls to France because, obviously, there was no point in shutting the door after people had already entered.

Two years on, we have substantially, if not completely, achieved all these ambitions through patient processes of persuasion with the French authorities and the Red Cross. There was no other way of doing it. Nobody has ever before persuaded another country to introduce immigration and security controls on its own soil.

Moreover, we have begun massively to expand legal economic migration to the UK. This means that we can ensure that we know who’s here and that they are here legitimately. These are migrants that we will be able to positively welcome, which does in turn require a proper integration policy.

We began working on our integration policy in 2002. It’s a very small beginning, where we support volunteer not-for-profit groups, local authorities and others as they take the necessary steps to expand the programme, but it is an experiment that is working.

We have to invest, for the sake of social cohesion; to build strong community coalitions; and of course to avoid downright racism and violence in our communities. But, above all, we have to invest in integration so that newcomers can approach the residents who are here and be welcomed and embraced into the community, and given the support that they need.

This is why we introduced into this process the new citizenship measures that Bernard Crick and his colleagues have been developing for our own young people in schools – including lessons in democracy and the learning of English.

I want to reach a position where we have a proper grip on asylum. This involves working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) on another venture which I started developing as soon as I became Home Secretary, now about to be launched – one that will allow people across the world who are threatened with death and torture to enter this country legitimately, without recourse to paying traffickers and organised criminals. I want to see that trafficking wither away. We have to do this, because the people who pay the trafficker to get across the world are of course the lucky ones who can afford to. They are not necessarily the ones who are at most risk.

Indeed, the Home Office statistics indicate some stark truths about who actually completes the current asylum process – from initial consideration, through to appeal and eventually to the right to remain. We are simply forced to agree to let many asylum-seekers stay, even though they haven’t proved their asylum claim, because we cannot return them to their countries of origin. They are allowed to stay not because their own lives would necessarily be threatened if they were returned, but because the overall conditions in these countries are not safe.

I want people to be welcome here. I want the administration of their cases to be to be rapid, effective, and competent. I want to see an end to all the stories about people having to wait for months and even years for this to happen. I want them to be worked with, and supported humanely.

Then, I want us as a government to be able to say to the British people, having earned their trust and understanding: will you now work alongside us to defeat the racists in our midst? Let us welcome people from across the world. Let us make Britain, not a fortress, but a place of welcome, and let us do this, not on the grounds that it is right and moral to do so, but on the grounds that it is economically necessary given our ageing population, and given the advantages that we have under the conditions of a new global mobility – advantages such as the attractiveness of the English language, spread worldwide through the use of satellite and the internet.

The alternative to making Britain such a place of welcome is to see it increasingly afflicted by clandestine entry. This would lead inevitably to the undermining of trade union reform, the undercutting of the national minimum wage, exploitation of people in sweatshops, and the inexorable creation of a sub-society within our borders. No one wants that. Instead what I want is to bring us together behind a balanced, sane and sensible approach – which I also believe, expresses Labour Party values.

Bob Rowthorn: A question of responsibility

People movement can be costly to countries as well as beneficial to individuals.

Can I begin by saying that I’m a great admirer of David Blunkett, and agree with most of what he has just said – but not everything.

It is very difficult not to be controversial on the issue of asylum. Only today I made a casual remark which I thought – wrongly – to be quite uncontroversial. After saying that Britain is a small, rich, peaceful country with a fairly good welfare state, with a relatively good record on ethnic and religious minorities (virtually nobody in this country would argue that a Muslim girl should not be allowed to wear her headscarf, for example), I said that this in itself makes Britain an attractive country to immigrants. On a global scale, I concluded, there are tens and possibly hundreds of millions of people who would come to Britain if they had the chance. That was the controversial statement.

People reply that this is not the current situation, despite the fact that there are open frontiers throughout the European Union. But not many people come to Britain from EU countries, because the vast majority of them are already living under rather good conditions where they are. Even in southern Italy, there is a welfare state, most people have jobs, they have family networks.

But on a global scale, this is clearly no longer the case. There are indeed very large numbers of poor people in the world who would come to Britain tomorrow if they could. They may come for the simple reason that they want to improve their situations. They are not criminals. They are not drug addicts. They just want to make a better life for themselves in a very unequal world.

The evidence from Puerto Rico, which has an open frontier with the United States, is interesting. 25% of Puerto Rico’s population moved permanently to the United States in the fifty years after the second world war. Many others went backwards and forwards between the two territories.

Advocates of open frontiers always see evidence of this backwards and forwards movement as a sign of future trends that everyone will join. But public unease about immigration stems partly from the belief that there is potentially a very large number of immigrants who would wish to come to this country if its borders were not effectively policed. To this unease, advocates of open frontiers reply: well, if we got rid of the border controls, we would no longer have illegal immigrants.

This of course is perfectly true. It also only adds to the widespread worry in the country, that our country may be overwhelmed by a very large number of immigrants. These fears may be exaggerated but they do have a real basis. So, it is not enough to talk, as Ben Page does, about dealing with people who have not been to university. In fact, some educated people are absolutely wrong about the facts, whereas some apparently ignorant people are factually correct. It is a matter of fact that the potential for large-scale immigration, if there were no proper policing, is very real indeed.

Once we leave questions of numbers behind us, I find myself in agreement with David Blunkett: the precondition for good relations between immigrants and the indigenous or local population is the knowledge that the policy is under proper control. This reinforces the belief that the country is a democracy whose government acts in an open and effective way to enforce laws, where the things that happen are broadly what people who live in this country have agreed to – rather than being a result of forces beyond their control.

Entry into and residency in this country should be based upon clear criteria, and those criteria should be properly enforced. A problem with people who work in the immigration field is that they tend to agree with this statement in the abstract, but they can’t think of a way of doing it. They meet every proposal that the law should be enforced with a negative response that emphasises its impracticality. They agree in principle with effective control, in practice they do not.

There has to be a system which is effective. In fact, this is the foundation-stone of a society which is based upon law – where laws exist and are enforced. Once effective controls are in place, it becomes possible to have meaningful criteria for immigration. It is important at this stage, when criteria for permitting entry have been tightened, to avoid arguments based on economic considerations being used to circumvent political decisions.

What is the responsibility of government in a democracy? Its first responsibility is towards its own citizens. People have to believe in this if a community is to work. But of course government, and citizens, also have responsibilities to others. For example, you take asylum-seekers because of the moral responsibility you owe outside your own community. That is a principle. But what is at stake when you consider economic migrants? Leaving aside our own interest, do we owe our primary responsibility towards individual migrants or towards the countries they come from? I would say that in the case of poor countries, we ought to give priority to the countries, and not to the individuals involved.

This raises some interesting questions. The Royal College of Nurses has recently released a report on the recruitment of foreign nurses into the health services in Britain. 7,000 nurses came from the Philippines in the last year they researched; there is evidence that the loss of nurses in the Philippines is causing great problems in the health service there.

A distinction between permanent and temporary migration may be helpful here. Temporary migration is often of benefit for developing countries because temporary migrants tend to send back in remittances a lot more of what they earn than permanent migrants. Moreover, temporary migration is more useful to poor developing countries than permanent migration, because of the ‘brain drain’ effect: it is mainly clever and ambitious people who go abroad, and these are the people who acquire new skills. Thus, poor countries can acquire skills through temporary migration.

But a temporary migration programme based on its benefit to the developing countries will win public support only if it is seen truly to be temporary. Difficult choices then arise; temporary programmes have to be enforced. Again, people who work in the immigration field don’t want that to happen.

One of the worst features of the mainly academic discussion of migration is that people routinely imply that there are no winners and losers. Everything is always in everyone’s interest. This is not the case. There are genuine difficulties in migration, and they have to be faced. For example, it is obvious that in general, migrants benefit from migrating. But it is not always beneficial to those whose countries receive migrants, and it may not be beneficial to particular subgroups of the population.

In conclusion, I would argue that whatever regulations are made for permanent and temporary migration, they must be enforced. A programme that wins general popular assent is needed – not a programme which is covertly implemented because employers want it. Employers will always press for more migration, because it is always beneficial for them to have more workers rather than less.

We need a serious public debate about the economic costs and benefits of migration to countries that ‘receive’ and ‘export’ people alike. I believe that such a debate can only be meaningful within the context of effective migration control.

Trevor Phillips: Out of difference, cohesion

Britain’s most popular institution is built on the labour of immigrants; the country’s, and Europe’s, future prosperity depends on continuing to welcome and integrate them.

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) which I chair has a lot to say about how asylum and immigration affect Britain’s community cohesion. In this respect, David Blunkett used a word that has become discredited in the discussion of race relations and which I would like to restore to respectability: integration.

I also welcome the way that David Blunkett’s emphasis on ‘managed migration’ has changed the terms of debate about the issue, itself mirroring a huge and necessary change in public sentiment.

Across Europe, including Britain, the debate still generates a kind of madness. In Holland recently, I was told about ‘Dutch women’ (by implication ‘white’) being assaulted by Muslim boys when they go to the swimming pool, though no one could tell me when and where this had happened. This led to a robust discussion with the mayor of Amsterdam about his plan to impose a tax on the import of Muslim brides. Holland’s migration policy is being influenced by this kind of perception.

Britain has its own version of madness – such as the Optimum Population Trust, which advocates closing the borders to immigrants and reducing the population from 60 million to 30 million by 2121.

But it is also painful to hear Bob Rowthorn saying, in effect: Britain is a lovely country, and we should stop people coming here. For centuries, people have invaded and waged war on others across the world – including forcibly moving up to fifteen million people from one place to another and killing half of them in the process. To create exaggerated fears now about the peaceful movement of migrants is dangerous.

Indeed, such arguments can assist the British National Party (BNP). It is no longer the BNP that used to confront us. It has become a new force, sophisticated, clean cut and eager to talk about litter bins and cleaning up local areas. We say that what the BNP is actually after is rather different. But the challenge is there. Ben Page’s figures demonstrate clearly that what the BNP is trading on is not people’s real experience but their fears.

Meanwhile, the underlying context of this debate is a Europe that is changing. The European Union’s population is projected by Wolfgang Lutz to go down from 370 million to 288 million over the next century, without migration. The economic consequences of that would be devastating.

The positive benefits of migration are all around us in Britain. Our National Health Service (NHS) is a prime example. The NHS is consistently voted the institution Britain’s people are most proud of and that is most characteristic of what it is to be British. This is an institution which was launched by a Welsh politician, built by Irish people, sustained by Caribbean nurses (amongst whom is my sister), run largely by Indians and other foreign doctors, and which is now cleaned by Somali refugees. So let us have no more fantasies about a monoglot British society. This is modern Britain.

A comment on two issues raised by Bob Rowthorn. First, on the impact of migration on poor countries: well, Jamaica earns 10% of its gross domestic product (GDP) from remittances. Every percentage point keeps some people in Jamaica out of the drugs trade. They are not complaining about this. Worldwide, there are $60 billion dollars in remittances from people who have migrated. They are not all George Soros – they’re ordinary people (like my parents) who send money back to their aunt or grandmother. That is 20% more than official aid levels.

Second, on the labour market: in the context of a globalised economy, what happens if migration is reduced? A tighter labour market, leading to the export of jobs. That is the way to close down British companies and deprive British workers. The better choice is to import labour, as the work permit system could be made to do.

The question of management of migrants and asylum-seekers needs to be discussed. Beverley Hughes, the government minister responsible for citizenship, immigration and community cohesion, has begun to decentralise the system that disperses asylum-seekers around the country. This will avoid the problem of dumping people in unsuitable places. We also need to focus on trafficking, low pay and the exploitation of migrant workers.

And of course, the management system has to work faster. We must address the long delays in processing applications for asylum, which leave people on the streets without the chance to work, becoming a visible symbol of what people are worried about. I hear this reaction a lot from ethnic minority people: “we came here and worked; why can’t they work while they’re waiting?”

Finally, we must manage migration today in a controlled fashion. Many of the people arriving now are a different kind of group from my Caribbean parents, for example – who were English-speaking and read Shakespeare. Many do not speak English, and are often Muslim. The way to deal with this, is to create bridges between communities. Contact, and communication is what makes communities cohere.

The need to increase contact is the key issue to focus on, not the number of asylum-seekers and foreigners. In this respect, I am pleased that the Home Office, under Blunkett, has started to invest in community cohesion, including support for race equality councils. We want to build on that, and to continue the debate – one that is based on real experience rather than imagined experience.

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