In July the British Home Secretary commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to report on the impact on the UK labour market of the UK’s exit from the European Union. In spite of this initiative, we have now learned from the leaked papers shared with the Guardian that the Home Office has already developed detailed proposals on immigration and workforce planning.
We have seen this all before. Contrary to their claims to support evidenced-based policy making, this government and the previous government have repeatedly ignored expert opinion that might challenge their political ambitions.
In response to the July call by Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Eddie Mair, host of BBC Radio 4’s PM (drive-time) programme, reminded listeners of several studies published on this topic. Yet, what he did not record and what is even more alarming is that not only is there a mass of relevant evidence – much of it solicited by the government – but it is all publicly available.
In July 2012, the coalition (Conservative/LibDem) government launched a Balance of Competences Review which was to serve as an audit of ‘what the EU does and how it affects the UK’. The overall review fell within the responsibility of the Foreign Office, then directed by Philip Hammond. Theresa May, then Home Secretary, and Amber Rudd, then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, also received reports on key topics commissioned on behalf of their ministries. By the time it concluded, the Review had gathered approximately 2300 pieces of written evidence and produced 32 subject-based reports.
One of the most significant studies was on the Single Market and Free Movement of Persons. The Home Office expressly invited evidence on the impact of immigration on local communities and on the UK’s employment sectors, including low-paid sectors that rely on migrant labour, including food distribution, hotels and restaurants, agriculture as well as banking and finance.
Like many academics, I submitted evidence to the review having been encouraged by the government’s promise that this review would be one of the most extensive analyses of what the EU means for the UK ‘ever undertaken’ and that it would ‘provide a constructive and serious contribution to the wider European debate about modernising, reforming and improving the EU’.
In July 2014 the final report on the Single Market and Free Movement of Persons was released and the supporting evidence later published on the government’s website where it remains today.
Yet, by the time the report appeared, few took notice. One exception was University of York lecturer Charlotte O’Brien who meticulously checked the report’s sources before charging that the commissioning body had used the review process to cherry pick evidence in order to advance its own case for reform of the European Union.
28 respondents (including the Scottish government and the National Institute for Social and Economic Research) stated that there was no evidence for, or gave counter-evidence to rebut, the claims that the balance of competences needed to be changed and that free movement was being abused. Despite this, the report that resulted from the consultation rather misrepresented the submissions received. It is dominated by references to submissions in favour of reform of free movement from David Goodhart (17 mentions), Open Europe (14 mentions) and Migration Watch (7 mentions).
In particular, O’Brien criticised the report’s heavy reliance on Goodhart’s submission which she charged was ‘a seven page source-free rhetorical commentary’ and alleged that the report’s authors had adopted a ‘Groupthink approach’.
I recently re-read the 2014 report and looked over the list of submissions. I noticed that some reports, including notes of conversations with Migration Watch, had been omitted from the government’s website and filed a freedom of information request.
In spite of the added weight given to Migration Watch, the Home Office was unable to provide notes of those discussions.
All substantive records of discussions with the above mentioned stakeholders were published in the final review report and associated evidence documents available on GOV.UK. In the course of the Review of the Balance of Competences stakeholders with interests in more than one report area were invited to discussions on more than one report and substantive contributions were considered in the relevant report. For example joint discussions were held on both Free Movement of Persons and Non-EU Migration. The reference to ‘additional discussions’ with these stakeholders refers to their participation in those discussions that related to more than one review area. Although the stakeholders were present at discussions on the Free Movement of Persons it does not indicate that they made a substantive contribution to discussions on the topic.
In addition to O’Brien’s allegations of selection bias, what was most striking about the report was that the list of evidence submitted was from the very same authorities that Rudd is now keen to hear from.
Having troubled civil society for expert opinion, the Cameron government buried the Balance of Competences Review. Yet the evidence collected remains on the government’s website.
In light of Rudd’s call for a fresh inquiry, it is instructive to read the submissions to the 2014 Review. There is no reason to believe that new submissions will differ much, three years later.
Here is just a reminder of recorded opinion on this matter:
- City of London Corporation:
The UK-based, international financial and professional services industry benefits from access to the pool of skilled and talented people via the free movement of labour provisions of the EU single market. It would damage British trade and economic interests to withdraw from these provisions.
- Law Society practitioner:
UK law firms have benefitted greatly from the EU internal market. The opportunity of providing services across the EU has been seized by the legal profession in the UK, with firms originating in the UK now playing a major role in the provision of legal services across Europe, and 76% of the UK top 50 law firms having at least one office elsewhere in the EU. This dramatic success is built on the EU freedom of establishment as well as the free movement of persons which enables lawyers and other staff to move freely between locations across the EU.”
The BMA supports, in principle, the free movement of doctors in the EU, so long as there are appropriate safeguards to ensure patient safety. The UK health system has benefitted from EEA and international doctors practising in the UK.
• National Farmers’ Union (NFU):
UK agriculture and horticulture has benefitted greatly from the free movement rights of workers from other member states to participate in the UK labour market. These migrant workers have alleviated shortages of skilled and unskilled agricultural and horticultural labour in the UK since the 1986, 2004 and 2007 accessions and workers from other member states are well regarded by our members. The free movement of persons has consequently contributed to the competiveness of our agricultural and horticultural sectors
There are a few conclusions one might draw from this sorry story.
The government has more than sufficient information at its disposal to inform immigration and industrial policy. May and Rudd have simply chosen to ignore a mountain of serious evidence that challenges their current position in pursuit of Brexit. By doing so, they have further undermined the role of experts and civil society in the process of governance.In light of the leaked Home Office paper, there is little reason to support the Migration Advisory Committee in what is clearly now another pointless exercise in political legitimation.Click To Tweet
Rather than assist the development of workforce policy, to the benefit of the UK’s economy and wider society, experts have once again been made redundant.
It is time this government stopped voicing its support for evidence-based policy. All the evidence so far suggests that is a lie.