Post-truth immigration policy - RSA

The UK's Post-Truth Immigration Policy

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  • Picture of Brhmie Balaram
    Brhmie Balaram
    Associate Director, Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing (family leave)
  • Economic democracy
  • Economics and Finance
  • Behaviour change

A pattern of spreading misinformation and pushing baseless policy is emerging and must be disrupted.

Yesterday, a Home Office document proposing new post-Brexit immigration controls leaked to the Guardian. The document outlined intentions to introduce restrictions on low-skilled migration from the EU, arguing that their presence would solely be self-serving and not make life any better for UK residents. In response to criticism of the document from EU leaders and UK businesses, Prime Minister Theresa May fanned the flames of nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, bending the truth about the impact of low-skilled migrants on the wages of low-skilled UK workers. 

The Prime Minister rushed to the defence of the Home Office’s punishing post-Brexit immigration proposals by claiming that low skilled migrants depress wages at the bottom end of the labour market. Upon hearing this, Vince Cable (who was business secretary in the coalition government) spoke up about May’s history of denial regarding the true bearing of immigration. Cable recalled,

“When I was business secretary there were up to nine studies that we looked at that took in all the academic evidence. It showed that immigration had very little impact on wages and employment. But this was suppressed by the Home Office under Theresa May because the results were inconvenient.”

He added, “Overwhelming it has been the case that overseas workers were complementary rather than competitive to British workers.”

This is not the first instance of May standing up for an immigration policy that has no merit. Just last week, she continued to champion the inclusion of students in the net migration target she had devised while serving as Home Secretary even though the flawed figures underpinning the policy had been exposed. In particular, there was (rightly) significant coverage given to the overblown estimates of how many non-EU students were overstaying their visas. The Home Office released a report revising the estimate of students overstaying their visa from nearly 100,000 to under 5,000. It acknowledged that over 96 percent of these students departed in time, confirming what many experts – from economists to entrepreneurs – had been voicing for years.

The dissolution of evidence-based immigration policy

The discrepancy between past and present estimates of students overstaying their visa is especially shocking. How did they get is so wrong for so long?

To record how many people are arriving in and departing the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been carrying out the International Passenger Survey (IPS), which was originally established in the 1960s as a travel and tourism poll. Britain is only one of two EU countries to rely on passenger questionnaires for data collection (the other being Cyprus). The IPS is conducted by randomly selecting travelers to interview throughout the day, but notably, this means that any students boarding red-eye, or overnight, flights won’t be captured.

As explained in the FT, estimating emigration based on survey data is also particularly difficult because those leaving may express uncertainty over when and if they are coming back (i.e. students who are job-hunting) and, until now, there was no comparable data source to check the IPS figures against. The ONS repeatedly warned that the survey had “inherent limitations” and was not designed to provide an accurate and detailed breakdown of net migration.

With the introduction of exit checks last year, the Home Office has finally been able to produce a credible data set to estimate how many students are overstaying their visa, which is why a drastically different picture has since emerged.

It’s not the outdated means by which the data was initially compiled that’s astounding; it’s the realisation that the Home Office persisted with its damaging net migration target in the full knowledge that the figures it cited in support of this policy were far from robust. The seeds of post-truth politics were sewn well before the Vote Leave’s campaign for Brexit; arguably, as alarming as the use of big data to target and manipulate voters, or the spread of fake news, is the dissolution of evidence-based policy.

The danger of using weak data (which is recognised as such by the institutions producing it, such as in the case of the ONS) to make risky political decisions is that it can undermine the credibility of those institutions if the policy backfires. Data is so often cherry-picked and manipulated for political gain that the public loses trust in its integrity, as well as in the institutions mining and analysing it. Our own government is a threat to democratic values when it belittles and belies experts, whether that’s Michael Gove declaring that the public is sick of experts or May knowingly misusing data from the ONS to defend and maintain her discredited immigration policies.

The psychology behind ignoring inconvenient truths

It may take years before May concedes that including students in the net migration target, let along the target itself, was misguided. When asked about the new figures, May denied that the Home Office grossly exaggerated the number of foreign students who fail to return home from the UK after their studies, instead insisting that the difference in numbers is actually proof that her policies are working.

While May was in the Home Office, however, her own colleagues, from George Osborne to Vince Cable, cast doubt on the statistics and the methods by which they had been collected; more recently, her own ministers Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd pressed May to change her policy for similar reasons, expressing concern about the impact on the economy. To ignore members of her own party and the coalition government she was a part of suggests she was driven by more than the evidence (or lack thereof). May appears to be making political decisions about immigration based on her gut rather than the strength of facts.

Yet, why would she, or any other politician for that matter, persist in pursuing policies even when confronted with evidence that they should be taking a different tack? Dr. Carol Tavris, a social psychologist from the University of California and author of “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” explains that when some of us make an error in judgment that reflects poorly on us and this conflicts with our view of whom we are as people (i.e. “I’m competent, I’m moral”) – our brain tries to relieve this tension by immediately making excuses and trying to justify our actions. The more time and effort we invest in our mistakes, the more difficulty we have admitting and letting them go.

How to prevent warped truths from becoming warped policy

The takeaway here is that our leaders are fallible and their egos can get best of them, which is why we need a strong commitment to evidence-based policy in all domains – whether immigration, the economy, or the environment, for example – and more checks and balances in the system. Now is the time to amplify the voice of experts, not mute or distort them. As the Home Office’s latest blundering of its net migration target and post-Brexit immigration proposals fades from the news cycle, citizens and experts alike need to keep raising these as issues and trying to hold May to account for defending policies that defy reality.

In a post-truth world where fake news is rampant and populism is on the rise, we need to be able to believe that our politicians can be trusted to make policies that are grounded in evidence and recognised as legitimate by a wide range of experts rather than based on one person’s ideological vision or political ambitions.


*Author’s note: To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is no evidence of a correlation between immigration and depressed wages, but that the evidence May is citing comes with many caveats and has been disputed. Immigration is not a significant causal factor of depressed wages for low-skilled workers, which is what May is implying when she cites only the impact of immigration on wages while failing to also reference the decline of trade union power, technological or industrial change, for example. Put simply, she is overstating the impact of immigration on wages to the general public, further stoking fears and resentment about immigrants.

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  • I believe it's important to keep emphasizing the importance of evidence-based policy and the use by any and all politicians and other public organisations (to say nothing of the media) of misinformation, cherry-picking or misusing statistics. One of the worst failings of our political class is their inability to admit that they may have got something wrong.

    At present, I feel that our democracy is getting into an increasingly parlous state. Apart from the proliferation of "fake news", misrepresentation of facts and evidence; deliberate attempts to denigrate experts because what they say is politically inconvenient; a media which not only misleads its audience but appears to lack a commitment to pluralistic democracy and the independence of the judiciary; and an increasingly casual relationship to the truth is causing widespread cynicism and, with the assistance of social media "echo chambers" is beginning to lead to a dangerously fractured and often unpleasant relativism.

    Organisations like the RSA, the IFS and the IOG are, I'm pleased to see, continuing to stand firm against this tide.