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Political fixation with 'responsiveness' to public opinion could distort the regulation of immigration and asylum

Regulation of immigration and asylum, one of the key domestic issues the government faces today, is increasingly viewed as an area of public interest and a case of government failure. But the government's anxiety to respond to public opinion could be putting its strategy at risk.

Will Jennings, ESRC Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR) at LSE, explores the issues around the regulation of immigration and asylum in a research article in CARR magazine Risk&Regulation, published this week (Monday 20 June).

From the available evidence, it appears that public opinion has been sensitive to the upward trends in immigration and asylum applications since 1997. In return, there is some evidence of 'opinion-responsive' risk regulation, in the reaction of the Labour Government to escalating issue importance of immigration and asylum between 1997 and 2004.

He concludes:

  • Since October 2002, the government has openly sought to alleviate public anxieties over the level of immigration and asylum applications through introduction of a range of statutory and non-statutory measures.
  • The popular notion of 'responsive regulation' is problematic for political management of migration flows.
  • The regulation of immigration and asylum is typically ill-defined as a 'risk' issue. It faces multiple dimensions of perceived and actual risks associated with population flows, including cultural, social and economic versions of risk.
  • Whereas many of the risks of migration inflow are relatively indeterminate, the economic benefits of the influx of youthful migrant populations are clear throughout the EU (in reducing the increasing demographic strain upon welfare systems).
  • However most policy debate and political rhetoric is based upon the surveillance and containment of external threats, not the regulation of internal problems.

Government regulation of immigration and asylum is increasingly informed by public disquiet, with the government openly promoting 'opinion-responsive' risk regulation. There are several problems with this strategy:

Will Jennings writes: 'It is evident that public opinion is uninformed and ignorant about many details of immigration and asylum policy... Yet, the rising importance of the issue does reflect a real sensitivity of public opinion to increasing population flows.'

  • There exists a tension between apparent sensitivity of the public to upward trends in migration and asylum inflows since 1997, but underlying opinions that are uninformed or prejudiced on many specific details of regulatory policy and enforcement.
  • Public support for tougher regulation of immigration and asylum is not always informed or premised upon the same principles as policies of government and the opposition.
  • Public attitudes on immigration and asylum regulation exhibit what appears to be a racist dimension.
  • There is a 'perception gap' between the official details of immigration and asylum policy and related public beliefs.
  • Significant sections of public opinion are uninformed on either policy risks associated with population inflows or on details of regulatory policy and its enforcement in the management of population flows.

'Even in an age of increasing sophistication in techniques of public opinion research, elected politicians must tread a careful path between responsiveness to public opinion and representation of public interest. Opinion polls and focus groups are unlikely to produce solutions to policy problems while the public remain unclear on detailed facts', writes Will Jennings.

Responsive Risk Regulation? Immigration and Asylum is by Will Jennings, ESRC/BP Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ESRC Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation at LSE.

Ends

A PDF of this for the article is available on request. Contact:

Notes:

Responsive Risk Regulation? Immigration and Asylum by Will Jennings, ESRC/BP Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CARR, is published in Risk&Regulation on Monday 20 June.

Risk&Regulation, Issue no.9, Summer 2005 is available in print and online,
http://www.lse.ac.uk/resources/riskAndRegulationMagazine/| 
If you wish to subscribe to the print version, please contact Sabrina Fernandez , tel: 020 7849 4635.

Risk&Regulation is the biannual magazine of the ESRC Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR). The magazine contains articles by leading scholars in the fields of risk and regulation and presents the latest research findings and commentary on risk and regulation related fields including managerial governance, financial control, utilities regulation, health, safety, and the environment.

The ESRC Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR) is an interdisciplinary research centre located at the London School of Economics and Political Science. CARR's research focuses on the comparative analysis of the organisational and institutional contexts of risk management and regulatory practice. In addition, CARR acts as a national and international hub for the field of risk and regulation studies through its outreach and visitors programmes.

23 June 2005

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