Wednesday, 20 April 2011
Ed Miliband on Poles and immigration
Ed Miliband has finally made a comment on the decision by his Labour colleagues in 2004 to allow Central Europeans to come and work in this country. Of course it would have been better if in his interview yesterday with Nick Robinson of the BBC, Ed Miliband had referred to the arrival of Central Europeans generally, and not just Poles, as it skews the debate somewhat around one nationality and makes Poles more vulnerable to possible future prejudiced discrimination and attacks in the right wing media.
That said, at least Ed Miliband has stepped more seriously into the debate on immigration than any other mainstream politician by considering the impact of the arrival of Central Europeans in this context as well as dwelling on non-EU immigration.
It is true that Poles and other Central Europeans are not part of the normal agenda when politicians discuss immigration issues. This is because legally they are EU citizens with as much right to live and work in this country as Brits or other EU nationals. They played a vital part in stimulating the economy and rejuvenating the workforce in the boom years between 2004 and 2008 and a large proportion of them integrated well into the social fabric of the country.
However, in the eyes of the public, Central Europeans are seen as an important factor in the immigration debate. Unless politicians are prepared to engage with this perception they will fail to have a meaningful dialogue with their own electorate.
Certainly Mr Miliband is right to say that the sheer number of arrivals had not been predicted either by the politicians in Britain (including Liberal Democrats and many Conservatives, not just Labour) or by the EU institutions at the time. It should also be added that nobody had predicted that so many Central Europeans may choose to stay and set up families here (130,000 Polish children in the UK below the age of 14,as I mentioned in an earlier blog, and more than 16,500 Polish speaking children in London schools).
Actually I think the decision to allow central Europeans was the right one, even though it was based on false prognoses. My real criticism of the government at the time was not that it had allows Central Europeans in, but that in doing so it had failed to monitor the arrival (and departure) of Central Europeans and let down local authorities and services which had to face unexpected local surges from the new arrivals. Of course the overwhelming majority of Central Europeans came here to work legally and in doing so they contributed to the exchequer both through income tax and council tax, but inevitably a financial pinch-point for local education and social services and for the police and hospitals should have been predicted.
It is important for Mr Miliband to stress at this stage that it is true that more Central Europeans have arrived and have settled than the government had predicted, but even if the decison to open the labour market in the UK to all EU citizens had not been made in 2004, it would still have had to take place by this year. What if the government had not been so generous in 2004? What would have been the dismal fate of agriculture and the native food industry in Scotland and East Anglia? Would the UK have had the manpower to prepare for the Olympics, or run all those hotels necessary to sustain the tourist boom? And let us look at Germany, which did not open up its market to its eastern neighbours until this year and suffered a not dissimilar influx of Polish workers, but the work these workers undertook was illegal and they paid no taxes to the German treasury.
It is equally important for any responsible politician and media pundit to point out that the only current policy that the UK can adopt towards all its existng EU citizens who are planning to stay long term, whether from Western, Southern, Northern or Central Europe is the same, namely to seek to integrate them better - in our schools, trade unions and job training - while working with Polish charities and other organizations to encourage repatriation of the homeless.
At the same time most members of the Polish community in this country would welcome further measures by the British government to control benefit fraud and to tackle the issue of welfare through a strict application of the habitual residence test.
In view of the UK's ageing population, with more and more British pensioners relying on the income of a dwindling indigenous workforce, the young Central Europeans in this country, and in particular the Poles, have much to contribute to the struggling economy and to enrich its social and cultural life. The UK economy cannot do without them.