Shine A Light

Press hysteria and UK government migration research: a contagious syndrome

A social scientist unpicks the flawed methodology of Home Office research on migration.

Simon Parker
10 July 2013

The Home Office Report, Social and Public Service Impacts of International Migration at the Local Level, has generated some predictable headlines and scare stories in The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, as a recent article in The Conversation points out. But what jumped out at me after reading the report is not so much the policy implications of its findings, but the meagre evidence base from which its conclusions are drawn. Here is a telling confession from the report’s authors:

"It was initially hoped that more data might be available to enable a clearer quantitative assessment of the impacts of different types of migrants, however it proved impossible to find data that was capable of being disaggregated in this way."

In other words, the authors don't have the data to draw any robust conclusions about the impact of immigration on local communities, services and economies. Even they admit that "a combination of statistical profiling, consultation with local authorities and other service providers, and discussions with relevant experts" is no substitute for a proper quantitative survey of the entire United Kingdom.

The report admits that international students (the exclusion of whom makes up the bulk of the government’s immigration reduction figures) and skilled European Economic Area workers (whom UKIP and much of the Tory party would like to ban) have a low impact on public services. Low skilled workers present a more "mixed picture", although the authors lack the data to demonstrate exactly how the costs and benefits stack up.

Then we get to "asylum-seeking and refugee groups" who are likely to have "the highest impact on services compared with other groups, especially in health, because of their particular characteristics and needs". Well yes, one might expect people fleeing from persecution, rape, violence and torture to have elevated health needs—that's the whole point of humanitarian protection!

Even so the refugee and asylum-seeking population is a small fraction of the annual net migration totals – less than 20,000 last year compared to 153,000 immigration arrivals for the year ending September 2012. But one has to dig deep in the report to find an acknowledgment of this. Given that the NHS treats 1 million patients every 36 hours, even if we include all those whose asylum claims have yet to be decided, the impact of refugees and asylum seekers on the NHS is in fact modest.

‘Impact’ is a complicated noun. If you experience an impact while driving a car it is invariably bad news, while the impact of better nutrition among 0-5 year olds in Sub-Saharan Africa will be positive for their life expectancy. Depending on context and content, an impact can be positive or negative. Except, that is, when it appears in a Home Office report or statement when the meaning of impact is always negative. Rather bizarrely for a research project that was almost entirely reliant on qualitative interview and focus group evidence there is no annex containing all the 'impact statements' that were put to the informants. Instead only a sample of the statements can be found by reading through the whole report.

Here is a telling example from the Home Office report related to Health:

"the high birth rates of some migrant groups produce additional demands on midwifery, maternity and health visiting services for asylum-seeking and refugee families (58%) and low-skilled migrant workers (52%)"

If we take out ‘the’ and ‘some migrant groups’ the tautological premises of the statement are immediately obvious. In other words if one accepts as true the statement that more babies are being born to migrants then it must also be true that this will increase the demand for maternity services. The logic of the argument is this

A → B → C 

Where A = immigrants, B = deficiency or abnormal propensity, and C = public cost bearing outcome or service denial.

Given this, it is surprising that 100 per cent of respondents did not say "well yes of course, that’s obvious". What no doubt constrained a significant minority from responding in this way is an understandable recoil at the prospect of the inevitable "Pregnant migrants over-run the NHS" type headlines that such pointless ‘research’ statements evoke.

Here’s another "when I turn the light out I notice it’s darker" example:

"The online panel also agreed, across all groups, with the statement that ‘when migrants lack English language skills, health service visits and appointment times are appreciably longer’".

Did any of the experts on the panel stop for a second to challenge the absurdity of such statements and suggest that a better question might be "Without foreign born doctors, nurses and ancillary workers the NHS would cease to function"? The fact that migrant NHS medical staff are more likely to be providing treatment to British born patients rather than the other way round is never discussed, even though a recent ICM poll for British Future (PDF) found that over half of all respondents believed that the NHS could not survive in its current form without the presence of foreign doctors and nurses.

No one is denying that movements of population through internal and international migration and increases in the natural birth rate require public resources, infrastructure and ‘social cohesion’ efforts. This has been a necessary feature of our history since the earliest beginnings of human civilisation. As the anthropologist James C. Scott writes in Seeing Like a State, the division of populations into (bad) nomads and (good) sedentary types advances a state agenda that sees all unplanned population movement as subversive of government and hence in need of surveillance and control.  

The headline writers of the Daily Mail and The Telegraph do not have to work hard to find ‘scientific’ support for their stigmatising narratives around the ‘toll’ and ‘burden’ of migration in this Home Office report, it is well embedded in Theresa May’s insistence that migrants and their family and loved ones only have value if they can demonstrate a net economic benefit to UK plc. Immigration Minister Mark Harper was able to instrumentalise the contribution of over 80 academics and ‘experts’ who took part in the research by drawing the quite erroneous conclusion that

"This report highlights the significant impact high levels of migration have had on UK communities. It emphasises the importance of protecting our public services and taking a robust approach against those who come here to exploit our welfare system."

No mention in Mr Harper’s statement that his conclusions are drawn from what the report’s own authors describe as "an informed but impressionistic assessment of the relative impacts of the different types of migrants mentioned here". Nor is there any acknowledgment that the report was entirely one-sided in focusing only on housing and service demand ‘impact’ while entirely ignoring the cultural, educational, scientific and economic benefits that migrant communities bring. Social scientists should be wary of collaborating in and endorsing government research that creates dangerous categories of ‘social impact’ on the basis of nationality and labour force characteristics, especially ones that mistake opinion for demonstrable population effects. There are better and more important targets for our collective energies.

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