Press hysteria and UK government migration research

Simon Parker wrote a post for OpenDemocracy about the recent Home Office report on the local social impacts of migration.

The Home Office Report, Social and Public Service Impacts of International Migration at the Local Level, has generated some predictable headlines and scare stories in The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, as a recent article in The Conversation points out. But what jumped out at me after reading the report is not so much the policy implications of its findings, but the meagre evidence base from which its conclusions are drawn.

Simon makes some important criticisms of the report, and of the academics who engage with this sort of research. I wrote this reply in the comments:

Simon, this is an excellent and thought-provoking article. You’re right that the evidence base is fairly meagre. It is mostly not primary research. The primary research here is gathering the experience of local authorities (and some other agencies I think). The locality profiling is analysis of existing data, and the consultation with “experts” is basically a review of the existing evidence. However, I think the report is pretty open about its limited scope and the thinness of the evidence base, as in the statement you quote. Of course “is no substitute for a proper quantitative survey of the entire United Kingdom”, but that’s a very high bar to set, and one that much rigorous academic research could never meet.

I think the report could be clearer in setting out the methodology (e.g. disclosing the full impact statements), and I think the methodology could have been improved. I know people who responded on-line or in person had trouble with a few of the impact statements, some of which seemed loaded. For instance, I think you are probably right about the “recoil” which might have stopped some respondents from giving completely honest responses in relation to a couple of the statements. This is an effect of the polarisation and toxicity of the debate which I mentioned, which means that every statement of fact about migration is immediately translated into a “pro” or “anti” view and framed as a cost or benefit. (One problem of this cost/benefit framing is that it makes it harder to address questions around who the net losers and net gainers from large-scale migration actually are, an issue with which radical academics should be concerned – see e.g. http://www.iwca.info/?p=10129 .) But I don’t think the methodology is flawed in the fundamental way this article (and its strapline) suggests.

There is another issue you raise, which I alluded to in my piece in The Conversation but should have been more forthright about, which is how the government spun the research. I haven’t seen the government press release, which I presume the Mark Harper quotes are from. The quotes seem to me to distort the findings of the report, and not to heed any qualifications about the meagreness of the evidence base. Crucially, the quotes (and the media articles based on them) ignored the central premise of the research, which is that different sorts of migrants will be associated with different migrants. This is a very common problem in research, especially commissioned research, and academics are often compromised because of the way our work is spun.

The way research then gets picked up by the media is also always problematic. We all bring our partisan readings to the research we read. Your use of the word “admits” in this article could be one example, which assumes that the report wanted to come to negative findings: my reading is that the authors were keen to stress “positives” along with “negatives”. (Interestingly, the NHS issue is the one “positive” the Mail article notes (“While acknowledging the hugely important work carried out by foreign doctors and nurses, researchers revealed a string of pressures on the NHS”).

The impact statements, I think, were intended to highlight an extremely important point, which the spin and reportage has failed to pick up on: policy-makers and the public need to dis-aggregate the category of migrant, to show (as you note) that many groups are associated “low impacts”. The report should, however, have been clear (rather than leaving it for readers to make the connection) that those groups associated with “high impacts” are generally the groups which are smallest in numbers.

And the report does note that “migrant workers can make a valuable contribution to the provision of services and to the local economy”: opening new businesses, providing skills, filling jobs, staffing the NHS. It is true that the structure of the report, with the local economy last, does not highlight this contribution. However, the work commissioned by the Migration Advisory Committee (including the report commissioned from Dustmann and Frattini on the impact of migration on the provision of UK public services (which only had “positive” findings), already covers the economy well, while service demand is under-evidenced. And I’m not sure of the value – apart from in propaganda terms – of trying to review cultural or scientific contributions to local communities.

Finally, the locality profiling is problematic in the way it uses the terms “high migration” (even though it carefully puts them in scare quotes) – which played straight onto the “toll” and “burden” narrative. But I think that public agencies and local authorities desperately need better tools to understand the patterns of changes they are experiencing, and government scientists and academics have a responsibility to help provide these. In some parts of London, for example, it is true that big majorities of births are to migrant mothers, which has a massive impact on resourcing maternity services and also shapes the perceptions of other NHS users. If our “recoil” instinct papers over this fact then we lose credibility.

Yes, we should be wary of collaborating in government research, given the way it is instrumentalised. The news articles about this report certainly gave me cause to reflect on my own complicity. But as social scientists who want to be engaged in social issues and not just write for other academics, keeping our hands clean also comes with a price.

There was a short courteous back and forth after that, which you can follow below the post.

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About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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