After joining HM Treasury in 1987 he held increasingly senior positions in the civil service, rising to be the chief economist at the Department for Work and Pensions and then the chief economist at the Cabinet Office. He left the civil service in 2009.
Portes was appointed as the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in February 2011. In October 2015, it was announced that Portes would step down as Director of NIESR before the end of that year following a management review at the organisation.
His areas of interest include fiscal policy, labor markets and immigration. He has a particular interest in the economic effects of 'Brexit' and was a prominent critic of the 'austerity' policies advocated by George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer: Portes has described the Coalition's Incapacity Benefit reassessment programme — a major Whitehall project that was supposed to cut welfare spending by up to seven billion pounds a year — as "the biggest single social policy failure of the last fifteen years". He analysed the government's welfare reforms for BBC Radio 4 in 2014.
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