How a points-based system could mean better immigration policy

In other countries, points-based systems which govern immigration for work have encouraged a culture of greater empiricism, a willingness to review outcomes, learn from them and adapt immigration policies accordingly. Will the UK have a similar experience?

The UK points-based system that will govern the rules for immigration for work post-Brexit has now been outlined by the Government.[i] In the build-up to the announcement of the new regime, debate largely focused on what the introduction of a points-based system should practically mean in the context of the existing UK immigration system for admitting skilled non-EU migrants. Some ask whether such a system is really needed at all in terms of achieving the outcomes aimed for.[ii]

There has been much less focus on one key aspect of the way that ‘points-based’ systems in Australia (and New Zealand and Canada – don’t forget them) have operated. Such systems have encouraged a culture of greater empiricism, a willingness to review, learn, and adapt; collecting and analysing data, tracking the outcomes of those systems against the intentions of the policies, constantly tweaking those systems as a result, leveraging off each other’s experiences as well as their own. Put simply, points-based systems have allowed some countries to adopt dynamic, evidence-based, immigration policy making.

Might the introduction of a UK points-based system herald a move in this direction here?

On the face of it, the prospects do not look good. The UK’s recent track record on collecting and learning from migration data is woeful. Unlike many EU states, the UK decided that EU free movement rules meant there was little point in collecting data about EU immigration. As a result the UK does not know how many EU citizens are here, or where they are. Population registers or ID cards have been regarded as something that other countries do. In consequence, the heart of the UK’s migration statistics remains the almost-60 year old International Passenger Survey (IPS), which the Office of National Statistics (ONS) admits “has been stretched beyond its original purpose.”[iii]

It was hardly a surprise therefore when last summer the ONS admitted that it had, as a result of its reliance on the IPS, been systematically understating the number of EU migrants who had come to the UK (and conversely overstating the number of non-EU migrants). The outcome of this admission was that the classification of the ONS’s quarterly international migration statistics, a staple of UK press reporting on immigration, was downgraded to the lower status of “Experimental Statistics.”[iv]

Yet even more fundamentally than that, over the past decade, the UK Government has increasingly appeared to foster a culture on immigration policy that is diametrically opposed to an approach based on empiricism and willingness to review outcomes, learn from them, and adapt. The shift in UK immigration policy during that decade, to a primary focus on reducing net immigration numbers,  came with a culture of wilful and flagrant disinterest in  anything that got in the way of that mission, such as the rights of the Windrush generation. There was precious little official reflection on why the outcome of immigration policy, as measured in that net migration number, was so far removed from that target.

But change may be afoot. The data being collected as a result of the EU Settlement Scheme for those EU citizens already in the UK is arguably telling us more about the numbers of different nationalities present in the UK than we ever knew before. And the Government seems to have woken up to the immigration control challenges of not knowing who is here doing what. Both EU citizens already here, and those coming in the future, will now have their status managed through an online process and linked to their right not only to be in the UK, but also to their rights and entitlements when accessing work and services.[v] The ONS is even making tentative steps into the murkiest of immigration areas; how should we best think about collecting data on the numbers of irregular migrants within the UK’s borders?[vi]

Greater attention to migration data for immigration enforcement purposes is one thing though. A commitment to go further than this, towards a culture of greater empiricism and of willingness to review the outcomes, learn from them, and adapt immigration policy accordingly, is quite another. But the former can support, indeed become, the latter. The ONS is “collaborating with the Home Office in the use of their administrative data, and to understand how the government’s plans to build a new end-to-end border and immigration system may provide new opportunities to use administrative data sources to measure international migration”, and, as importantly, unlike the IPS, administrative data provides the potential for more granular, local authority-level outputs. [vii]

Take the Home Office exit checks programme, which was reinstated in 2015[viii] because of concerns over immigration control. The Initial Status Analysis system, which was built by the Home Office exit checks programme and which links data from different sources, is for operational and security purposes. But the data from these checks on the movements of non-EU nationals is being used by the ONS to provide important statistical insight into certain aspects of migrant journeys and migration patterns to/from the UK. It is also being interrogated by the ONS through the lens of the Statistics New Zealand framework on administrative data quality and the sources and dynamic interplay of statistical errors[ix], an important example of the UK leveraging off the experiences of another country.

The ONS responded openly to the challenge of those questioning the split of EU/non-EU migrants in its statistics, ultimately conceding their concerns were well founded, and proposing an interim solution to address them. This is arguably a laudable example of an open minded and responsive culture, as was acknowledged by its original critics on this issue.[x] There is also the ONS’s commitment to transform its production of migration statistics by moving away from its reliance on the IPS, and understanding how Government administrative data can be shared, and linked into relevant survey data, to construct a much more robust statistical process. Also notable is its admission that more than just stocks and flows data is needed to understand the impact of immigration: “we also need to tell a clear story about […] how different groups in the population impact on society and the economy, including on our workforce, communities and public services such as the NHS and schools.”[xi]

But what of the Government itself? Firstly, we should at least give some credit to recent UK governments of all colours for the existence and input of the Migration Advisory Committee. The MAC was set up by the Labour Government in 2007 to provide it with independent advice on certain economic migration questions. Some criticise the MAC’s membership, others the parameters under which it operates. But the MAC has put an evidence-based approach at the heart of UK immigration policy, providing an important counterweight to raw emotion and simple assertion. Since its inception UK governments of all political persuasions have listened to it. And in large part they have accepted its recommendations, despite not being bound to do so.

When it comes to recent events, what else can we glean from the Government’s announcement on the points-based system? Do we see evidence of a willingness to test, openness to learning from experience, and to tweaking the system as a result, but also an understanding that excessive tweaking may lead to over-complexity? Arguably yes, we do. “The Home Office will continue to refine the system in the light of experience and will consider adding further flexibility into the system including additional attributes that can be ‘traded’ against a lower salary … However, we need to guard against making the system too complex.”

In other points-based systems around the world, a prime focus of data collection, monitoring and analysis of outcomes has been on that part of the system that allows people with certain attributes to enter the country without existing job offers. Do those people end up contributing in the way that was anticipated? In the UK version of the points-based system, the UK is proposing initially to only take a small step, to dip its toe (back) into the water, in creating an unsponsored route alongside the employer-led part of the system. But tellingly the Government makes clear that: “our starting point is that this route would be capped and would be carefully monitored during the implementation phase […] This route will take longer to implement; we want to learn from previous experience of similar schemes in the UK that have highlighted certain challenges.”[xii] This at least suggests an awareness that lessons learned and iterative adaptation should sit at the heart of the UK’s immigration system.

But more is needed. It is welcome that the ONS will be considering the ‘burden’ of immigration on schools and medical services, but if we are to fully understand the full picture of immigration’s impacts why would this not be matched by data and analysis on some of the ‘benefits’ of immigration?  For instance, the financial contribution and receipts such as fees, taxes, national insurance contributions, received from immigration could allow a more balanced, and joined up, framing of migration statistics, and of the broader immigration debate itself. And we could go further. In the US, an estimation of numbers of people employed by migrant-owned businesses at each district level is made public by the New American Economy project.[xiii] Why not in the UK?

Meanwhile, many golden nuggets of evidence which are unearthed, and could potentially reveal important information about migrant motivations, perspectives and strategies in the UK, still seem to be left lying idly in the dust. Take for example the MAC’s analysis that more than a quarter of non-EU masters students in the UK seem to go into jobs with earnings more commensurate with the minimum wage, than with the minimum salary threshold which the UK requires for the employment of non-EU workers.  As the MAC said, this raises a key question: how this is possible under the current immigration rules? Is there a problem with the data? Or are these Masters students remaining in the UK and working irregularly? Or have they been able to stay and work legally in the UK at this lower wage level by switching to other lawful (eg family) immigration routes which means they are not bound by the minimum salary threshold? No-one seems to know. Or that keen on finding out. [xiv]

This goes to the heart though of any genuine effort to understand and manage migration. If we really are invested in achieving this, in addressing why policy outcomes so often tend to differ from what is expected, we need a much better practical understanding of migration from the migrants’ perspective. What really drives their choices, decisions and patterns, of migration, stay and return?  In short we need to be much more interested in migrants.

This may seem a very big ask indeed. You would need someone at, or near, the centre of power willing to challenge established practices and to promote a culture of greater empiricism, a willingness to learn from outcomes, and adapt immigration policies accordingly. Do we know of such a someone…?
















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