A brief history of managed migration (and why it isn’t an easy alternative to free movement)

15 June 2023: Don Flynn’s Migration Commentary: A brief history of managed migration (and why it isn’t an easy alternative to free movement)

Managed migration’ has been the official goal of government policy since the late 1990s.  It has gone down a confused, stumbling road, requiring constant revision and return to legislation in order to resolve its innumerable internal tensions and conflicts.

The central idea is that migration is linked to strategies for economic growth, with the numbers of people being admitted linked to perceptions about what the jobs market needs at any point in time.  It is possible to see ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ versions coming into play over the years. The period 2001-05 – associated with David Blunkett’s time at the Home Office – provides the example of soft managed migration, led by the assumption that the strong economic growth of the period would absorb all newcomers into the labour market in a virtuous cycle promoting higher levels of prosperity for all.

But whilst Blunkett believed that numbers didn’t matter, as long migration was contributing to economic growth, he was pessimistic that working class voters would accept this relative openness.  Alongside a reformed work permit scheme (later to be refined and marketed as the Points-Based Scheme), he also worked to increase the capacity of the immigration control authorities to impose their own order on the rising number of arriving migrants.  He laid out plans for biometric identity cards, ramped up fines on employers not properly checking the paperwork of their workers, and increased the size of the immigration detention estate – all measures intended to show that he would be ‘as tough as old boots’ with regard to any migrant who failed to pass muster.

Out of control

The soft approach, such as it was, became the object of a virulent campaign in the tabloid media which alleged massive abuse of the immigration system combined with a large negative impact on the living standards of native workers.  Blunkett failed to demonstrate that his department had the level of oversight and control that he claimed his policies had achieved.  His prime minister, Tony Blair, came down on the side of the negative media coverage of the issue and pivoted to the harder approach, firstly during the brief period of Charles Clarke in the Home Office, and then John Reid.  Reid famously declared the Home Office as being ‘not fit for purpose’ when it came to managing immigration, and set course for policies that more strictly tied non-EU migration to the conditions imposed by the Points-Based Scheme and a range of actions with challenged elements of free movement rights for EU nationals.

The hard approach ultimately provided no more assurances to voters that migration was ‘under control’ than had been provided by the softer scheme.  Arguably, simply by investing even more strongly in the narrative that ‘something had to be done’ about immigration simply reaffirmed the widely-held view that Labour had screwed up from day one and now couldn’t be trusted to get anything right.  As the government stumbled headlong into the crises and recessions of the period 2007-10 the spike in unemployment levels and arrest in wage growth, properly attributed to the credit and sovereign debt shocks, came to be blamed even more strongly on immigration.

Even harder

Labour’s eviction from office in 2010 was not the end of managed migration.  The scheme was taken over wholesale by the Cons-Lib Dem coalition with two significant tweaks.  The first, and best known, was the pledge to reduce net migration’ to the ‘tens of thousands’ over the lifetime of Parliament.  The second was to reinforce the state’s capacity to police migration through the adoption of the ‘hostile environment’ strategy.  Both of these innovations were fully consistent with the claim that migration was being sensibly managed in ways that supported economic growth and prosperity.

In truth, managed migration, in terms of its stated aims, has failed just as badly under the coalition and subsequent Tory government as ever it did under Labour. Net migration increased to levels around two and a half times higher under these governments from that inherited from Labour.  The hostile environment has been shown to be a catastrophic error, both in terms of the harm it has done to long-settled migrants and also the to reputation of the Home Office for basic competence. As things stand, the record of managed migration in all its forms across the past 20-plus years is abysmal.  Even more depressing is the fact that there is so little evidence of essential lessons being learnt by senior politicians of either of the two large Parliamentary parties.

Read more: Don Flynn’s Migration Commentary