Manchester, Boston, Croydon: what can they contribute to the national conversation on migration?
A couple of highlights of my work during the past ten days or so have been a trip up to Manchester for a discussion event organised by Migrants Workers North West (MWNW) and a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration considering how policy should work to make sure ‘no one is left behind’.
Photo: PaulSh (Flickr)
Both of these meetings dealt with the local impacts of migration across the UK, and in particular drew on the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the 2011 census of England and Wales. It is increasingly clear that we are living in evidence-rich times and ought to be leaving behind the superficial anecdotes and reliance on presumptions about migration impacts have dominated much public debate.
Migration in the North West
The MWNW event took as its starting point the evidence of migrant settlement in the North West over the past ten years, and attempted to link this up with what is known about developments in the local economy and labour markets over that time. The discussion started by reviewing the basic information from the census, showing that the region has 13% of the total population of England and 8% of the country’s migrants. But an even more revealing picture emerges from the disparities across the North West - data shows that Greater Manchester received the lion’s share of the region's migrants (56%), whilst the cities and towns of Merseyside attracted just 14% of all newcomers.
The census data helps to frame further questions about how migrants are faring in the region, and their impacts on the previously settled population as well as on important services like health, housing and education.
Labour Force Survey evidence indicates that 62% of migrants in the NW are in employment, compared to 72% of residents born in the UK. The difference is likely to be accounted for by a number of factors, ranging from particular disadvantages experienced by some ethnic groups which inhibit their labour market participation, through to the difficulties in entering and keeping employment during the early period of settlement, which tend to reduce over time.
Numerous questions are prompted by the latest statistical evidence about migration to this region. What are the local factors which bring migrants into some districts but not others? Could a better understanding of these factors help us predict the likely consequences of particular types of investment and development for migration, either making it more or less likely?
Sharpening political quality
It is at this point that detailed studies of migration into the UK regions acquires a much sharper political edge. When looked at closely, significant stakeholders come to understand their interests much more clearly and began to develop types of public advocacy which are intended to protect and extend these.
A participant in the North West discussion, the MP for the Manchester constituency of Stretford and Urmston, Kate Green made the point that rational debate on immigration policy is bound to balance the costs of population movement against its benefits. In the area that she represents, this is inevitably affected by the high level of its existing diversity and a wide range of poverty and disadvantage issues which are currently not addressed by public policy.
These were all themes taken up by last week's APPG meeting which debated how public policy in areas attracting migration can act to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’. The Conservative MP Gavin Barwell outlined the challenges of understanding what is really going on in his Croydon constituency, with its experience of diversity and its role in the London economy. He said that politicians are often affected by doorstep encounters on election campaigns, and that the strong views of their constituents about immigration can directly shape MP's attitudes towards government policy.
His experience was that engaging in deeper conversation with people in these circumstances could draw out more reflective and nuanced viewpoints in issues that had initially seemed black and white. However, busy Parliamentary candidates usually didn’t have time to go beyond an initial conversation.
Another take was provided by Paul Kenny, a councillor from the Lincolnshire town of Boston. Boston has the distinction of being one of the English districts most changed by migration during the past decade. It has featured in many news reports as a town troubled by this experience, with some local citizens participating in public protests alleging high levels of use of public services y newcomers.
Cllr Kenny led a taskforce inquiry on the local impacts of immigration for the borough council, which looked more deeply into local claims about migration impacts. The report found that, contrary to claims that migration had increased crime in the area, it had remained at a fairly constant level over several years. Local trade unionists did not agree that immigration had adversely affected employment opportunities for long-term residents. And representatives of local schools disagreed that the children of migrant families were putting unsustainable pressure on local resources - instead, they said that improvements in education practices and leadership had allowed school services to move beyond the initial problems in responding to new arrivals.
With the census data and the quality of local level evidence as set out in the Boston report it is becoming increasingly clear that the case can be made at local level for a more level-headed approach to the issue. This would, in turn, help to clarify what policies are needed to deal with those issues that do arise from local experiences of migration.
Need for community sector leadership
The problem is that, with a few honourable exceptions, politicians caught up in the hurly-burly of party politics are unlikely to spontaneously arrive at a rational appraisal of the benefits and costs which Kate Green identified as crucial to a sensible discussion about immigration.
If the change is going to come about it will be because organisations in the voluntary sector get their acts together and come up with strategies for evidence-gathering and advocacy which tailors all the arguments to the situation as it exists on the local ground. If we can come up with a formula for evidence-based, community advocacy of this sort, then perhaps we might at last see the tone of the public conversation on immigration improved, and better public policies as a result.