Polish Londoner

These are the thoughts and moods of a born Londoner who is proud of his Polish roots.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Poles - the dark horse in the immigration debate

I attach my comments made on BBC News Channel following David Cameron's speech on immigration on 14th April 2011. He expressed concern that mass immigration had "created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods". As you can see from the youtuble clip below, I describe the Poles in the UK as the dark horse, the great unmentionable, in the immigration debate.


Actually Poles and other central Europans in the UK are the lynchpin to the misunderstanding between the public and politicians in the immigration debate.

The Prime Minister and other leading responsible politicians stress that they are concerned with the increase in non-EU immigration and are considering measures like caps, controls on overseas students, closing down bogus teaching colleges, tougher control of asylum seekers and the enforcement of a ban on bogus marriages and forced marriages. They also want to consider stricter restrictions on citizens arriving from new EU members, such as Romanians or Bulgarians, or any that join the EU from now on. None of his proposed measures were remotely new. Labour, which had introduced the sensible measure that all future applicants for British citizenship should speak English, and the Liberal Democrats criticise the PM's speech and say that enforcing such a cap on skilled immigrants and students paying high course fees is counterproductive both economically and culturally.

However all the time all 3 main parties talk about non-EU immigration. They note in particular concern about the increasing cultural isolation of some of the Muslim minorities and the presence of illegal immigrants in an underground economy. Politicians and pundits stress this non-EU element because they know very well that under their EU treaty arrangements citizens of states that are members of the EU in 2004 or before, such as Spain, France, Portugal, Poland, Hungary or the Baltic States are no longer strictly immigrants, but EU citizens, with as much right to live and work here and raise a family as a British citizen. For the same reason British citizens can live and work anywhere in the EU.

This is NOT how the average UK citizen sees the situation. For good or ill the UK indigenous population sees the influx of Poles and other Central Europeans into this country since 2004 as an immigration issue. To the public they are part of the immigration debate; to the politicians they are not.

This does not mean that the British people are universally hostile to Poles or see them necessarily as a cultural threat. Since the Second World War there has been a sizeable and even popular Polish community living in Britain, integrated into the economy but still with a distinct cultural presence. Integration, yes: assimilation, no, was their watchword. This would be an excellent model for other minorities to follow.

Since the accession of the so-called A8 countries, of which Poland was the largest, into the EU in 2004 and throughout the boom years before 2008, Poles were almost welcomed by all but the most churlish, as hard working, diligent, unobtrusive and bringing a boost to the British economy and the British exchequer. They were compared favourably by most newspapers to the supposedly "work shy" young Brits living off state benefits and unwilling to find work. Poles were considered the saviours of Scottish and East Anglian agriculture and had an enviable reputation as competent cheap plumbers and builders and as diligent customer-friendly hotel and restaurant staff.

Nevertheless the less prosperous or adventurous sections of society, as well as a number of ethnic minorities who had arrived in the last 30 years, resented their presence from the start. The right wing press exploited this. I remember the Indian councillor in Southall urging his Labour colleagues to condemn recent "immigration from Poland" because it threatened the livelihood and prosperity of Southall. He said this without any irony, oblivious to what the white population had been saying about the new Asian arrivals in Southall only 30 years before.

Then the boom years ended. The job losses and frustrations about future prospects that have arisen since the financial crisis in 2008 and the recession that followed caused a genuine fear that native citizens were losing jobs and the Central European visitors were not. "They are stealing our jobs," was the populist cry. Incidents of verbal abuse and even acts of violence against Poles increased in this period.

In fact the the sheer numbers of new arrivals from Central Europe with at least more than a million living in this country at present, of which some 700,000 would be Poles, made that fear about job losses and ethnic tension worse. Poles form more than 1% of the UK population at present. Their impact on social services, education and crime are also being viewed with alarm by many members of the general public following sensational media headlines in the "Daily Mail" and "Daily Express". In large multiethnic melting pots like London or Manchester their presence is not so provocative but Poles are particularly visible in rural areas and in towns like Grantham, Boston, Crewe or Redditch which do not traditionally have a high proportion of ethnic minorities.

The fact that new fears are often exaggerated or based on false statistics does not allay people's fears. Until the results of 2011 census are published, the public will not trust any official figures by the government and other institutions on the number of immigrants in this country, whether legal or not. This is due mainly to the reluctance of the previous government to monitor the figures properly despite pleas from organisations like the Local Government Association or the Federation of Poles in Great Britain. Political correctness prevented a proper debate on the issue.

In fact supposedly high crime statistics, such as the 2010 figures showing more than 6000 criminal convictions by Polish citizens in this country, still means that less than 1% of Polish citizens in this country have been involved in criminal activities and the remaining 99% are law abiding. This compares well to the national crime statistics for the same period which show that for every 100 residents in this country, seven crimes are being committed. There is also resentment that so much child benefit is being drawn to support chidren still living in Poland. However this is compatible with current EU legislation and the only alternative is that the children be brought to Britain, where they will cost the British taxpayer far far more. It is also a drop in the ocean compared to the £2 billion plus annual input of Central Europeans into the UK economy. Also Poles pay income tax and council tax themselves, so they are taxpayers too, as well as electors in local and European elections.

One phenomenon that is increasingly visible is the large number of Polish children in the UK. The current estimate by the Polish Centre of International Relations is that there are 130,000 Polish children living in this country under the age of 14. The majority of them do not speak English until they get to a school. There are currently 16,500 Polish-speaking children in London state schools alone. In 2007 the total figure had been 7958 so the total has more than doubled. In Boroughs such as Ealing, Brent, Hounslow, Barnet and Haringey the increase in Polish speaking schoolchildren has been really dramatic. In Ealing the number of Polish-speaking schoolchildren had risen in 4 years from 1277 to 2536, the equivalent of 3 new schools. In London the local education authorities are used to the task of inducting young children from abroad into the British way of life, but in the rural areas and small provincial towns this integration has not been so easy.

Furthermore while many newly arrived Poles have integrated exceptionally well into the British economy and the local social fabric and have found jobs in the NHS, banking, accountancy, the retail trade or just setting up their own businesses, a harder core of mostly young and middle aged men remain obstinately outside it and either living in self-made Polish ghettoes or in total isolation. The issue of the Polish homeless and those exploited by working in insanitary or hazardous jobs for low pay below the minimum wage has sometimes exacerbated the negative image of Poles in this country, though they form only a small minority of the Polish population here.

The fact remains that the presence of Central Europeans is the unresolved taboo subject which makes it impossible for a meaningful dialogue between politicians and the public. Promises by David Cameron to reduce annual immigration figures to "tens of thousands" is simply just not being believed. Politicians continue to steer the debate to the issue of non-EU migrants and asylum seekers and the public consider the EU citizens as being part and parcel of the problem.

Statistically the presence of EU citizens, and especially Poles, is a black hole, hidden by a babble of obfuscation and well meaning self deception. It will remain that until the proper statistics are revealed by the Census and the public is brought in to face the truth about the Central European influx. If some of the public see the issue of immigration as a some kind of disease or wound afflicting this country, then that wound needs to be properly recognised for what it it is and analysed properly without any half truths before that wound can start to heal. The public deserves the whole truth and politicans and social analysts should start to provide it.

The first truth, which the politicians should state clearly, and not just mumble, is that all EU citizens have a right to live and work in this country, and, if they are employed, they are eligible for certain benefits. They are not legally immigrants even though many of the public so perceive them.

The second truth is that, while many Poles and other EU citizens, migrate backwards and forwards to where the jobs and the best living conditions are, once they have settled comfortably in this country, earning a good salary, or running a business, or starting a family, they are in all intents and purposes, likely to remain for a long time, if not for ever. This had not been foreseen by politicians in 2004 when the labour market was opened to the new EU citizens, but neither for the most part was it foreseen by the young Poles themselves.

The third truth is that arrivals of new central Europeans cannot be curtailed by current law and those living here cannot just be expelled. Of course the government is right to regulate welfare benefits to EU citizens more effecively by introducing the habitual residence test, by seeking agreements with Polish charities to repatriate homeless EU citizens and expel those with criminal convictions here. They are right too to monitor child benefit fraud more carefully, especially in their review of current welfare provision in this country. In any case, less Poles are arriving here because of the economic crisis. Far fewer new national insurance numbers are being issued annually to Polish citizens. However the crisis has not prevented an increased influx of other Central Europeans, notably Romanians, Latvians and Lithuanians.

If the government wishes to tackle some of the recession-fed social tension around the question of Central Europeans in this country, it cannot expel them or discriminate against them. So the only solution is for the government, both at national and local level, to take steps to integrate them better, even though not all of them will be seeking to be integrated.

I have already referred to the measures in my presentation to the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Poland in March 2008. The Government should ensure the maintenance of proper national and local statistics on all immigrant communities and for EU citizens, following the census results later this year, and the reintroduction of "counting people out" as well as "in" to the country if immigration statistics are to have any validity. I urged the further extension of free lessons in English and civics, a special unit to monitor hate crimes against Central Europeans, easier access for Poles to register with local surgeries, an increase in Polish speaking staff in hospitals, clinics, the police and court staff (if only to cut down on the wasteful expenditure on interpreters), the extension of the Gangmaster Agency to the hotel and building industries and increased support for local education authorities and health trusts with a large population of newly arrived foreign nationals. The trade unions are doing magnificent work in seeking to integrate Central Europeans into the economy and tackling anti-Polish prejudice in the work force; the government should back them all the way in this.

The public at large are not fools. They know that this further integration is the only way and that expelling Poles and other EU nationals is not an option. But they need to hear the politicians emerge from under the parapet and say this too. If they do not say it then in this tense period of economic uncertainty extremist and anti-European organisations like the BNP and UKIP will increasingly seize the agenda and push the public into a stance that flies in the face of all civised debate and would entail the suspension of the UK's EU membership. Then increased anti-Polish prejudices will make many in that community feel threatened and increase the siege mentality of both the Central Europeans and the indigenours population, thus increasing the spiral of hatred, violence, and further mistrust of politicians.

So Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband, Mr Clegg speak to the people of Britain in a language they understand and earn their respect.

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