Rising inequality? A lack of affordable homes? Dissatisfaction with a political class seen as increasingly out of touch? Fears about an ever more unstable world?
With such a range of complex issues facing them, politicians are increasingly seeking to simultaneously explain the growing sense of unease felt by their constituents and present simple solutions to these woes. Across Europe and the US, one issue which appears to address all of these concerns is being utilised by a growing number of politicians – and that issue is ‘immigration’.
Whether it is the Republican Convention in Ohio or the Conservative Party Conference in the Birmingham, immigration has become the scapegoat of choice this year to an extent rarely before seen.
At one extreme end of the scale, Donald Trump has his wall and his promise of mass deportation, while less extreme but on the same scale, Theresa May cracks down on foreign workers (including the much relied upon foreign doctor) and students and proposed requirements for employers to publish details of their foreign workers are on the table.
Facts, however, consistently appear to be an irrelevance.
In her speech yesterday, Amber Rudd told us that immigration must be reduced in order to ‘change the tide of public opinion’. Theresa May told us that unemployment and low wages were the fault of low-skilled immigration and reprimanded those of us who question this account.
Once again, we see politicians treating negative public opinion on immigration as fact and failing to question the assumptions which underlie that opinion. Are they legitimate? Do increased levels of immigration make it harder for UK nationals to obtain employment or well-paid employment? Are immigrants to blame for increased pressure on public services? Numerous studies, including a Home Office report in 2014, have found that answers to these questions are not black and white and if anything, the evidence points to the pros of immigration outweighing the cons.
“In the long term, it is argued that there is no negative impact on wages or employment of native workers as, over time, economies find ways to adjust to a stable equilibrium. Dynamic impacts on productivity and innovation may imply that in the long term migration could have positive impacts on the labour market.”
Why bother with facts though? If public opinion is that immigration is bad, then surely it must be so and we must formulate policy on that basis. And why should we expect the public to be well informed about immigration when the Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility shows a worrying lack of understanding about our current system? Amber Rudd stated in her speech yesterday that it was time to ‘tighten the test companies have to take before recruiting from abroad’.
Is our Home Secretary aware of the Resident Labour Market Test which companies must already comply with? Does she know that compliance for companies looking to employ workers from abroad has become far stricter and employers are having to spend an increasing amount of time and vast sums of money if they want to employ recruits from abroad? Does she really believe that the vast majority of companies would rather go through this laborious and expensive process if they could find the skills they needed in the resident labour market?
Theresa May aimed to persuade us yesterday that she will stand up for the weak in society but it is hard to square such a stance with a policy proposal to name and shame employers for daring to employ foreign workers. Much like her legislation as Home Secretary to require landlords to police the immigration status of their tenants, such a proposal is likely to lead to discrimination in the workplace.
Theresa May earned her credentials as Home Secretary and learned how effective the word ‘immigration’ is as a response to legitimate concerns people have about their lives and livelihoods. Despite making changes to immigration which have damaged businesses and universities and undermined access to justice by destroying rights of appeal (see also our previous blog on this subject), people’s concerns about their lives and the world we live in grow stronger. Instead of looking critically at this approach and questioning the real reasons for the public’s dissatisfaction, Theresa May, much like many others, continues to take the easy way out.