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Bridging the GapsLinking Research to Public Debates and Policy Making on Migration and Integration$

Martin Ruhs, Kristof Tamas, and Joakim Palme

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198834557

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198834557.001.0001

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‘Independent Experts’ and Immigration Policies in the UK

‘Independent Experts’ and Immigration Policies in the UK

Lessons from the Migration Advisory Committee and the Migration Observatory

(p.69) 5 ‘Independent Experts’ and Immigration Policies in the UK
Bridging the Gaps

Martin Ruhs

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the experiences of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and the Migration Observatory (MigObs) in providing independent analysis to inform immigration debates and policy‐making in the UK. The MAC was established by the UK government in 2007 and MigObs was launched as an ‘impact project’ by the University of Oxford in 2009. The chapter includes critical reflections and personal assessments based on the author’s role as one of five members of the MAC during 2007–2014 and as the first Director of MigObs during 2009–2012. The chapter shows how the institutional design of an impact initiative such as MigObs, or of an expert advisory body such as the MAC, can have important implications for its credibility and political acceptability, and thus long-term impacts on debates and policy-making.

Keywords:   research, experts, immigration, immigration policy, UK

This chapter discusses the experiences of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)1 and the Migration Observatory (MigObs)2 in providing independent analysis to inform immigration debates and policy-making in the UK. The MAC was established by the UK government in 2007 and MigObs was launched as an ‘impact project’ by the University of Oxford in 2009. I provide critical reflections and personal assessments based on my role as one of five members of the MAC during 2007–2014 and as the first Director of MigObs during 2009–2012.

The chapter begins with a brief overview of the changing scale, public opinion, and politics of immigration in the UK since the mid-1990s. It then discusses the origins and goals of the MAC and MigObs, their approaches and strategies, as well as effects and experiences. My assessment of the MAC and MigObs is necessarily selective and focuses on what I think have been the most important issues and experiences. I conclude with a few implications and suggestions for ‘research impact initiatives’ and researchers who aim to bridge the gaps between research, public debates, and policy-making on migration.

(p.70) Migration to the UK: Rising Numbers, Public Opinion, and Changing Politics

The size of the foreign-born population in the UK increased from about 3.8 million (7 per cent of the population) in 1993 to over 8.7 million (13.5 per cent of the population) in 2015 (Rienzo and Vargas-Silva 2017). This rise in the number of migrants in the UK is the result of considerable increases in net migration flows (i.e. immigration minus emigration) since the mid-1990s (see Vargas-Silva and Markaki 2017). Net migration increased sharply in the late 1990s, after 2004 (the year of EU enlargement), and in 2013 (when the UK economy was recovering from economic downturn following the financial crisis that began in 2008). In 2015, annual net migration reached a record high of 332,000 but it fell sharply to 248,000 in 2016, the year when the UK voted to leave the European Union. This decrease was primarily the result of a decline in EU net migration which was the consequence of a fall in immigration and an increase in emigration of EU citizens to and from the UK (Migration Observatory 2017).

Since 2004, a large part of the growth of the number of migrants in the UK has been driven by immigration from the EU. Together with Ireland and Sweden, the UK was in a minority of EU15 countries that opened its labour markets to workers from the new member states immediately upon EU enlargement on 1 May 2004. Following this decision (and subsequent rounds of enlargement that included Romania and Bulgaria in 20073 and Croatia in 2013), the number of EU-born migrants in the UK tripled from about 1.2 million in 2003 to over 3.5 million in 2016. EU migrants now constitute over one-third of all foreign-born persons in the UK. Poland has recently replaced India as the most common country of birth and citizenship among the migrant population in the UK (Rienzo and Vargas-Silva 2017).

The rise in migration since the mid-1990s has been accompanied by an increase in the salience of immigration as an issue of concern to the British public (Blinder and Allen 2016). During most of the 1990s, fewer than 5 per cent of the British public considered immigration as one of the ‘most important issues facing the UK’. Since the early 2000s, immigration has consistently ranked among the five most important issues. In most of 2015, immigration was the biggest issue of concern to the British public, more important than the economy and the National Health Service.4 Notably, following the 2016 UK referendum vote to leave the UK, the salience of immigration in public opinion in the UK declined markedly. By April 2018, immigration had dropped to the fourth most important issue among the British public (Ipsos MORI 2018).

Opinion polls in recent years show that a majority of the British public would like to see immigration reduced. Over 56 per cent of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey 2013 said that immigration should be ‘reduced (p.71) a lot’, while 77 per cent chose either ‘reduced a lot’ or ‘reduced a little’ (Blinder and Allen 2016). While public opinion data are not always comparable over time, the evidence suggests that public attitudes have been in favour of reductions in immigration for a long time, even when the actual number of migrants and the salience of immigration as an issue of concern were much lower than today. Since the early 1960s, a majority of the British public has said that there were ‘too many immigrants’ in the UK (Blinder and Allen 2016).

The rise in the scale of immigration and its salience in public opinion have been accompanied by considerable changes in the domestic politics of migration in the UK. The Labour government that came to power in the late 1990s strongly believed in the economic benefits of immigration. It implemented a number of ‘managed migration’ policies, such as expanding the UK’s work permit programme for employing skilled non-EU workers and encouraging foreign students to enrol at British universities. The government’s decision not to impose any transitional controls on the employment of A8 workers at the time of EU enlargement in May 2004 was fully in line with its goal of expanding migration to fill vacancies in skilled and, especially, in low-skilled occupations, where employers found it difficult to employ migrants legally before EU enlargement (because the work permit system focused on admitting skilled non-EU workers only).

The increase in EU immigration in the UK after enlargement in 2004 turned out much larger than the government had anticipated, fuelling a popular impression that immigration was ‘out of control’. With public opinion hardening against immigration, the Labour government decided to reform its immigration policy. In 2008, the government introduced a ‘points-based system’, which comprised three tiers for admitting migrant workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). According to the UK Home Office: Tier 1 was for ‘highly skilled individuals to contribute to growth and productivity’; Tier 2 for ‘skilled workers with a job offer to fill gaps in the UK labour force’; and Tier 3 (which has never been opened) could facilitate the admission of ‘limited numbers of low skilled workers needed to fill specific temporary labour shortages’. The UK’s points-based system was designed to make policy simpler and more ‘rational’. Increased selection and regulation of admission by skill, with higher-skilled migrants facing fewer restrictions than lower-skilled migrants, was at the heart of the new policy. Importantly, while the new points-based system aimed to increase the ‘selectivity’ of the admissions policy, it did not include a limit on the number of migrants coming to the UK.

After coming to power in May 2010, the Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition government, led by David Cameron, essentially maintained the structure of the existing points-based system but added an explicit annual migration target. The overriding objective of the UK’s immigration policies since 2010 has been to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ (i.e. to (p.72) less than 100,000). The target has never been achieved but, nevertheless, remains, at the time of writing this chapter (mid 2018), at the heart of the government’s immigration policies. The desire to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands was affirmed after the Conservatives won a majority in 2015 and it has remained a key goal for the current Conservative government under Theresa May. Few people believe that the target can ever be achieved, yet in early 2018 it remains a stated policy goal while Britain is negotiating its exit from the European Union. Concern about immigration has been a major factor, and some argue the most important issue, in explaining Britain’s referendum vote to leave the European Union (Goodwin and Milazzo 2017).

The Migration Advisory Committee (2007–)

Aims and Rationale

Set up by the then Labour government in 2007, the MAC is an independent body5 of five academic economists and migration experts tasked to ‘provide transparent, independent and evidence-based advice to the government on migration issues’. The MAC is sponsored and funded by the UK’s Home Office. The work of the MAC is supported by a secretariat comprising civil servants (researchers and policy experts) from within the UK’s Home Office. Appointments to the MAC are made in line with guidance by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments; that is, it is an open and competitive recruitment process. Members of the MAC are usually appointed for three years. Re-appointment is possible for another limited period of time (typically a further three years). The Committee usually meets once a month.

The establishment of the MAC was part of the process of introducing the new points-based system for regulating non-EU immigration in 2008. The MAC was set up with the specific (and narrowly defined) mandate of recommending which occupations should be on the ‘shortage occupation list’ within Tier 2 of the points-based system. Tier 2 (for admitting skilled migrant workers with job offers) includes three sub-channels: one admits migrants to fill jobs in ‘shortage occupations’ (the ‘shortage occupation route’); a second admits migrants after employers try and fail to find ‘local workers’, including British workers or workers from other EEA countries (the ‘resident labour market test route’); and a third admits ‘intra-company transfers’ employed by multinational companies; that is, workers who are employed by a multinational abroad and are transferred to an office of the same company in the UK.

(p.73) Employers wishing to recruit migrants from outside the EU have a keen interest in their vacancies being on the shortage occupation list because there are relatively fewer obstacles to admission. Employers thus frequently lobby the government to include specific occupations on the list. Before 2007, the shortage occupation list was drawn up by civil servants. The pre-MAC process of deciding which occupations should be included and excluded from the list was once described to me as ‘analytically inelegant’. The initial rationale for establishing the MAC was to make the shortage occupation list more evidence-based.

The mandate of the MAC has expanded over the years to cover a wide range of migration policy issues. Since 2007, the MAC has produced over forty reports and advised on most—although not all—major changes in UK immigration policies, including, most recently, the development of a post-Brexit immigration policy.6 To understand why the MAC was established and why its remit expanded over time, it is important to understand two key features of the MAC’s processes and work. First, the MAC only advises in response to specific questions asked by the government. The MAC normally responds to government queries within three to six months, issuing a public report (usually launched at a press conference) that lays out the questions posed by the government, the analysis, and its recommendations. The fact that the MAC cannot independently launch an inquiry with a published report and recommendations means that the government remains in control of the issues and questions analysed by the MAC.

Second, the MAC provides advice but does not directly make policy. In other words, the MAC’s recommendations are non-binding, which means that the government can accept or reject the MAC’s advice. The fact that the MAC’s advice is public can make it hard, but not impossible, for the government to reject MAC recommendations without good reason or further evidence. Since 2007, the government has accepted the great majority of the MAC’s recommendations but, as discussed further later in this chapter, not all of them.

Approach and Strategies

All of the MAC’s analysis has been based on a combination of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches. Top-down analysis refers to analysis of existing large-scale data such as labour force survey data on earnings, employment, and other characteristics of the labour market. Bottom-up analysis includes consideration of qualitative data and information, as well as extensive engagement with all the relevant stakeholders including employers, trade unions, government departments, civil society, and so on. Whenever the MAC launches a new inquiry, it issues a public ‘call for evidence’ inviting any (p.74) interested party to make written submissions. In addition to soliciting written evidence, MAC members and the secretariat also meet a large number of people and organizations including through site visits at major companies, schools, hospitals, and the like. This extensive engagement with stakeholders has been a key aspect of the work of the MAC, adding to its transparency and credibility. The MAC has always tried to avoid working and being seen as a body of experts who advise on policy without engaging the relevant affected people and organizations. In many cases, the government’s questions to the MAC cannot be answered without engaging at the micro-level because relevant top-down data simply do not exist. For example, when the government asked the MAC to investigate claims about a shortage of mathematics teachers, the MAC’s analysis had to rely heavily on bottom-up information as the top-down (labour force survey) data were not detailed enough to capture mathematics teachers.

A second important feature of the MAC’s approach has been to be clear about subjective normative judgements that are inevitable when providing policy advice. Immigration generates uneven benefits, and migration policy-making ultimately requires a balancing of competing interests. For example, deciding whether the optimal response to labour shortage is the admission of migrant workers, higher wages, or some other option is an inherently normative and political decision. Independent expert commissions such as the MAC can make the trade-offs between these options and their consequences clearer, but they cannot, and should not, replace an explicit political debate about how to balance and prioritize competing policy objectives. The MAC’s approach has thus been to highlight trade-offs and different policy options. As an advisory body, the MAC makes specific policy recommendations but they are usually based on an explicit discussion of the relevant trade-offs and normative judgements made.

Impacts and Experiences

Following its establishment by a Labour government in 2007, the MAC was retained by the subsequent Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition government (2010–2015) and Conservative governments (2015–). In my view, its principal benefit has been to improve the quality of policy debates on migration and related public policy issues in the UK. Not all stakeholders agree with the specific policy recommendations made by the MAC but there has generally been widespread agreement about the data and evidence presented by the MAC as part of its analysis of the questions asked by the government. On a wide range of migration policy questions, the MAC’s reports and analysis have become the accepted starting point and evidence base for debate.

(p.75) Another key benefit of the MAC has been to highlight and trigger debates about the important interconnections between migration and a wide range of public policies, such as labour market policies, welfare policies, education, and training policies, housing policies, enforcement policies, and so on. A key problem with immigration debates is that they are often conducted in isolation from other public policies that not only directly impact on, but can also be directly affected by, immigration. For example, in its analysis of alleged shortages of social care assistants, the MAC highlighted the important links between public funding for social care and the demand for migrant care assistants. London is one of the world’s most expensive cities, and two-thirds of the caregivers in London who look after the elderly and disabled in their homes or in nursing homes were born outside the UK. Caregivers are often employed by private firms and non-governmental organizations that have contracts with the local authorities (i.e. local government) that pay for social care (Ruhs and Anderson 2010). Public underinvestment in the care sector has kept caregivers’ wages low, while the desire to provide good care means that caregivers must have credentials that require training. British workers with credentials can earn more outside the publicly funded care sector, so training more British workers—a common suggestion to curb labour shortages—would not help in this case. The MAC’s analysis highlighted the trade-off between taxes and caregiver wages. It concluded that care ‘budgets need to be larger, or at least better targeted toward those parts of the sector suffering from labour shortage, so that those workers can be paid more’. The MAC recommended that only the highest skilled care workers be added to the shortage occupation list to avoid ‘institutionalising low pay in the care sector’ (Migration Advisory Committee 2009: 96).

Based on my experience as a member of the MAC during 2007–2014, I would highlight four key limitations and problems. First, the fact that the government decides the questions for MAC analysis means that there can be important questions that the MAC does not analyse for political reasons. For example, the Labour government in power until 2010 never asked the MAC to advise on limits to immigration despite the fact that the pros and cons of numerical targets were key issues in public debates on migration at the time. Similarly, subsequent Conservative-led governments were, until recently, unwilling to ask the MAC to advise on the immigration of students despite huge public controversies about whether student immigration should be restricted, and whether students should be taken out of the net migration target. In late 2017, after sustained pressure about this issue for many years, the government finally asked the MAC to advise on the impacts of international students in the UK. To be clear, the fact that the MAC cannot independently start inquiries on issues of its choosing is a limitation—but it is also a key reason why the MAC exists and has found continued political (p.76) support. By choosing the questions, the government can clearly control the scope of the work and recommendations of the MAC.

A second limitation—which is not accidental—stems from the composition of the MAC in terms of the disciplinary backgrounds of its independent academic members. The MAC was conceived as a body of economists. When the MAC was established, the government also created the Migration Impacts Forum (MIF) which was meant to advise the government on social issues related to immigration (with the MAC focusing on economic concerns). However, the government did not provide the MIF with a secretariat and its work was, therefore, extremely limited. It never really got off the ground and ceased to exist after a couple of years. As a consequence, the MAC became the key advisory body dealing with a range of migration issues, primarily but not always economic in nature.

A third key issue that has affected the impacts of the MAC relates to the implementation of the MAC’s recommendations. The government has formally and publicly accepted the great majority of the MAC’s recommendations since the late 2000s but it has not implemented all the recommendations it accepted. At times, the government claimed that it had made policy changes that were ‘in the spirit’ of the MAC’s recommendations without really doing at all what the MAC had recommended. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever analysed how and to what degree UK governments have actually implemented the numerous recommendations by the MAC that have been formally accepted. In my view, this would be an important piece of work.

Fourth, given the set-up of the MAC, and especially the government’s ability to decide on the questions, there is clearly the danger that the ‘independent’ MAC is used to provide ‘evidence’ and ‘objective analysis’ that ends up being used to support a particular policy in a way with which the MAC would not necessarily agree. As a former member of the MAC, and speaking for myself only, I think this was the case with the MAC’s inquiry and report on the minimum threshold for admitting family migrants (Migration Advisory Committee 2011). The government had asked the MAC to advise on the following question:

What should the minimum income threshold be for sponsoring spouses/partners and dependants in order to ensure that the sponsor can support his/her spouse or civil or other partner and any dependants independently without them becoming a burden on the State?

(MAC 2011: 6)

The context and motivation for this question was that the government felt that the existing minimum threshold was too low. At the time, a UK-based sponsor (UK national or foreign national with indefinite leave to remain) required a post-tax income of £105.95 per week (£5,500 per year), excluding housing costs, to apply to bring a spouse or partner into the UK. This figure (p.77) was determined by the Home Office following an Immigration Appeal Tribunal ruling in 2006 that the sponsor’s income must be at least equal to what the family would receive on income support.

The MAC’s conclusion and recommendation was as follows:

The MAC recognises that family migration regulations are not determined by economic factors alone. But it is an economic issue—required family income—that we have been asked to address. On this basis, the present income stipulation is too low. The MAC suggests, instead, a minimum gross income figure to support a two-adult family of between £18,600 and £25,700.

(MAC 2011: 1)

Based on the MAC’s analysis and advice, the government decided to change the income threshold to £18,600. Importantly, the Home Office decided that the immigrating partner’s income could not count towards the threshold (this was also made known to the MAC during its inquiry). As a consequence, a large number of British citizens (e.g. about 40 per cent of British citizens working as employees in 2015) were no longer able to sponsor a family migrant (e.g. spouse or partner) from outside the EEA. Young people and women are less likely to meet the threshold because of their relatively lower earnings in the labour market (Sumption and Vargas-Silva 2016).

Unsurprisingly, the new threshold led to a series of court cases that concluded with a Supreme Court Judgment in early 2017. As explained in more detail in Sumption and Vargas-Silva (2016), in July 2013 the High Court ruled that the family income requirement was not unlawful in itself and that the aims of the policy were legitimate. However, the whole set of requirements—including the level at which the threshold was set and the exclusion of spouses’ future income—was deemed disproportionate and unlawful (High Court 2013). This decision was overturned in July 2014 by the Court of Appeal, which ruled that the Home Secretary had ‘discharged the burden of demonstrating that the interference was both the minimum necessary and strikes a fair balance between the interests of the groups concerned and the community in general’ (Court of Appeal 2014). The case was then heard by the Supreme Court in February 2017. The Supreme Court decided not to overturn the new income threshold.

During the various court cases, the MAC’s report played an important role. The government argued that it presented an objective evidence-base that could be used to justify the new threshold. The government thus used the MAC to support its position in court cases about a new and higher threshold (which the government would have surely tried to implement with or without the MAC’s advice). This example shows how the government was able—through its power to decide on the scope and wording of the question, as well as the exclusion of the partner’s current or future income—to shape and influence the MAC’s analysis and its impacts on debates and policies.

(p.78) The Migration Observatory (2009–)

Aims and Rationale

Based at the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford, MigObs is an ‘impact project’ set up in 2009. It aims to provide impartial, independent, and evidence-based analysis of data on migration and migrants in the UK in order to inform media, and public and policy debates, and to generate high-quality research on international migration and public policy issues. Comprising a core team of four to six staff, the Observatory’s analysis involves a large number of experts from a wide range of disciplines and departments at the University of Oxford and beyond.

The rationale for establishing MigObs was to inform debate with ‘neutral’ reviews of existing data and research, as well as discussions of the trade-offs associated with different policy options. With immigration rarely out of the news and high on the policy agenda, we felt that there was an opportunity and need to provide journalists, policy-makers, civil society, and the general public with an accessible ‘one-stop’ website with easily downloadable data, information, and analysis on migration in the UK, set in an international context. A key aim has been to enable media and participants in the UK’s migration debate to use MigObs materials to make more evidence-based arguments about migration.

MigObs was initially funded by a consortium of three charitable foundations (Unbound Philanthropy, the Barrow Cadbury Trust, and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund) that were concerned to see a less polarized debate on migration and migrants in the UK. Over the years, MigObs managed to expand and diversify its funding sources, which now include a wide range of different organizations including various academic funding bodies.

The work of COMPAS, the umbrella research centre where MigObs is based, has always included extensive public engagement activities. The establishment of MigObs was regarded by COMPAS as an additional ‘impact initiative’ which would further facilitate linkages between research, public debates, and policy-making. It also served the purpose of generating policy-oriented research and an ‘impact case study’ that could be submitted to the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) which plays an important role in the allocation of public funds to different universities and university departments.7 Such research evaluations take place every four to five years.

Approach and Strategies

The recruitment and make-up of the initial core team of MigObs was an important strategic decision. The initial MigObs team included three (p.79) post-doctoral researchers (two economists and one political scientist) all of whom were actively pursuing research agendas on issues related to migration and public policy. Given our aim to present migration data and research in an authoritative and credible way, we felt it was important to recruit researchers with recognized academic expertise and publications. Perhaps somewhat unusually for a project based at a university, we also recruited a senior Head of Media and Communications (a former journalist with several years of work experience in the UK and United States) and a web developer (who was with us full-time for one year, and part-time subsequently). Given the characteristics of the British media landscape, we felt it was critical to recruit an experienced media expert who could help us researchers ‘navigate’ the British (and international) media. The full-time web developer was needed because the MigObs website was going to be one of the principal ways of disseminating our work.

I remember sitting down with the newly recruited team in 2008 to discuss how to develop the project for launch in early 2009 (we were given a one-year development period). We faced two major challenges. First, how should we balance ‘neutral’, evidence-based, and potentially ‘dry’ presentations of the data and available research with our aims to be relevant, up-to-date, and ‘interesting’ to media, policy-makers, civil society, and other participants in the UK’s highly polarized migration debate? Second, given the relatively small size of the core team, how could we generate data and materials that remain up-to-date and relevant to current debates?

We decided to structure the MigObs outputs and website in four sections:

  • Briefings: Overviews of key migration issues, supported with data, analysis, and explanations of the nature of the evidence and its limitations. The MigObs website now includes in excess of forty briefings of about 3,000 words each, updated annually.

  • News and commentary: Analysis of migration issues in the news and newsworthy elements of migration research, press releases, and a space for links to media coverage featuring the MigObs. MigObs usually publishes one or two commentaries per month.

  • Data and resources: Key charts, maps, tables, and other data—including a facility to create your own charts based on specific datasets.

  • Policy primers: In depth expert discussions considering the complexities, challenges, and trade-offs associated with particular migration issues. The primers included submissions from MigObs staff and other experts on migration issues from COMPAS and from other Oxford University centres and departments.

(p.80) A third important decision that was taken during the early stages of the development of MigObs was to pursue a strategy of pro-active engagement with a wide range of stakeholders and potential users of MigObs materials. This included organizations and individuals who were known for their arguments in favour of and against immigration (such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, a ‘left-leaning’ think tank and Migration Watch, a well-known pressure group), as well as a wide range of different media outlets including tabloids, broadsheets, television, radio, and online presence.

Impacts and Experiences

Since 2009, the MigObs has become widely recognized as a major source of independent and evidence-based commentary and analysis of key migration policy issues in the UK. The Observatory’s work has been heavily used and cited in senior policy circles (including by various government ministers), among a wide range of civil society organizations, as well as all major news outlets in the UK. I focus my following comments on three interrelated challenges with which MigObs has had to deal since its inception (and mainly during my time as Director in 2009–2012), relating to ‘independence’, ‘credibility’, and ‘visibility’.

Somewhat predictably, but perhaps still earlier than we had expected, soon after its public launch the independence of MigObs came ‘under attack’ by the Daily Mail and Frank Field, a Labour MP, alleging a ‘left-wing bias’ in our work.8 Critics asked how MigObs could be independent given that its funders were charitable organizations with a broad interest in ‘improving migration debates’ and helping bring about more just societies? Part of the MigObs response was to argue that, while our charitable funders did have their own normative goal and arguments, they funded MigObs specifically for the purpose of providing non-partisan analysis.9 To the extent possible, MigObs also continued to engage proactively with organizations and people who were sceptical about its ‘independence’. Over the years, claims of political or other bias in MigObs analysis have notably declined. Still, it is clear that, for some people, the characteristics of MigObs funders, together with the fact that the project is based at a university, remain reasons for questioning the neutrality of MigObs analysis and commentaries.

A second key challenge has been to establish and maintain the credibility of MigObs as an authoritative source of data and analysis in highly polarized debates and contested policy environments. Being based at Oxford University has clearly been a great help in establishing credibility in terms of the quality of MigObs research and analysis. MigObs has had access to a large number and wide range of academic researchers with considerable expertise in migration and related public policy issues. Some of the researchers who contributed to (p.81) MigObs hold strong and well-known normative and policy views. So, where briefings and analysis have been prepared by ‘outside researchers’, a key challenge for the editorial process has been to ensure that the presentation remains neutral and in line with the aims of MigObs. Our policy has always been that, while we respect individual researchers’ personal views, all work that is part of MigObs needs to be conducted and presented in a neutral and strictly evidence-based manner.

Media and public debates often (although not always) seek out commentators with opposing viewpoints; that is, one commentator speaking in favour of immigration and the other ‘against’. This can create challenges for organizations that explicitly do not ‘take a line’. It can become particularly problematic when MigObs is invited to discuss migration with one other ‘expert’ who takes a strong view. MigObs strategy has been to avoid most of such interviews and discussions.

A third challenge relates to the aim of maintaining visibility in media and public policy debates. In the context of a highly polarized debate, organizations that focus on explaining insights and limitations of existing data and research without advocating for a particular policy position can easily find themselves crowded out by other ‘experts’ with stronger views, ‘more clarity’, and ‘less uncertainty’. As a Daily Mail journalist once told us, ‘the Daily Mail reader does not like uncertainty’. While this has been a challenge in the early years of MigObs, more recently it appears to have become a strength. Given the increasing polarization of the debate, there seems to be an increasing demand for commentators who present analysis (e.g. about numbers and impacts) without suggesting what the policy conclusions should be.


The MAC and MigObs have undoubtedly played important roles in linking data and research to public debates and policy-making on immigration in the UK. Comparing the constraints and impacts of the two organizations illustrates the obvious but important point that the ‘institutional design’ of an impact initiative such as MigObs, or of an expert advisory body such as the MAC, has important implications for its credibility and political acceptability, and thus long-term impacts on debates and policy-making. While national migration debates and policy-making processes differ across countries, evidence-based and transparent analytical approaches that generate public but non-binding policy recommendations are likely to be important characteristics of successful impact initiatives in a range of different countries.

(p.82) It is also important to recognize and emphasize, as MAC and MigObs have done repeatedly, that it is neither feasible nor desirable to ‘take the politics out’ of migration debates and policies. Policy-makers sometimes present and justify expert advisory bodies in terms of their alleged function of ‘de-politicizing’ migration debates and policy decisions. In my view, this impression should be avoided and resisted by the experts involved whenever possible. Ultimately, all policy decisions are inherently normative, in the sense that a decision needs to be made about whose interests to prioritize and how to evaluate the inevitable trade-offs. Experts can advise and suggest policy options but they cannot, and should not, identify the one ‘optimal’ policy solution that, for most questions, does not exist.

Linking research to media debates and policy-making processes carries ‘risks’ for all sides—for the researchers, journalists, and policy-makers. Understanding and appreciating the different actors’ objectives, constraints, and perceived risks is critical to constructive engagement. For researchers who wish to inform public debates and policies, this means that trying to understand the ‘politics’ of immigration, as well as the characteristics of policy-making processes and media debates, is of fundamental importance. As Christina Boswell, in Chapter 2, and other contributors to this book have pointed out, research and researchers can have various different ‘functions’ in public debates and policy-making processes, some of which may go against the researchers’ personal views and motivations for engagement. This is a clear risk that, in my view, can never be avoided. More evidence and analysis can lead to better-informed migration debates and policy-making processes but this is, of course, not necessarily the same thing as ‘better policies’.


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(3.) In contrast to its policy of granting A8 nationals immediate unrestricted access to the UK labour market in 2004, the UK government decided, in 2007, to impose transitional controls on the employment of A2 workers in the UK, primarily due to the larger than expected inflows of A8 workers during 2004–2007.

(4.) Until 2015, the ‘most important issue’ coding scheme combined ‘race relations’ with ‘immigration’ and ‘immigrants’.

(5.) Formally, the MAC was set up as a ‘non-departmental, non-time limited public body’.

(6.) In July 2017, the government commissioned the MAC ‘to advise on the economic and social impacts of the UK’s exit from the European Union and also on how the UK’s immigration system should be aligned with a modern industrial strategy’.