Polish Londoner

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

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Where Ed Miliband still got it wrong on EU immigration.

As a lifelong member of the Labour Party and a former Labour Councillor I can only shake my head with dismay at the latest comments from Ed Miliband made in his speech to on 22nd June 2012 stating that the decision in 2004 to open up the labour market in the UK to citizens from the 8 new countries of the European Union was a mistake. The bold decision by the Labour government in 2004 for EU citizens from central Europe to work in this country, subject only to control by the worker registration scheme, was the right one. However grim it may seem at present, in the depths of a double-dip recession, it has to be remembered that this decision was made at a time when the UK economy was expanding and was hampered only by a lack in both skilled and unskilled manpower. There were a number of mistakes made at the time starting with a serious miscalculation as to how many Poles and other Central Europeans would arrive. Government estimates that no more than 13,000 would arrive every year was an obvious miscalculation based as it was on the supposition that all EU countries would open up their labour markets. Also there was no attempt to monitor the amount who arrived, the level of pay they received and the potential strain on local authorities, health trusts and police divisions at pinchpoints where a large amount of Poles had settled. All these issues had been raised by the Federation of Poles in Great Britain in their report to Parliament in March 2008 but they were ignored. However none of these errors meant that the main decision to allow the Central Europeans in the EU to live and work in the UK was a mistake. Because of the failure of other countries in the EU to follow the UK's example (except Ireland and Sweden) Britain got the brightest and the best from Poland and its neighbouring countries. Between 2004 and 2007 nearly a million young entrepreneurial work-hungry Europeans arrived here from beyond the Oder, took any job that was going, revitalised the hotel industry and rescued Scottish and East Anglian agriculture, set up over 50,000 businesses, some of which employed UK citizens and ensured a friendly experienced face in the health service, social care, in offices, cafes, pubs and public utilities. Gradually many moved on to book-keeping, office and factory management and City jobs, They were largely young and single and were prepared to come or go in accordance with the needs of the market. Due to their registration they were also UK taxpayers contributing themselves to many of the local services provided for them. According to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research the Polish workforce alone contributed £12 billion to the British economy in the first 3 years alone, even though a similar amount was sent to their families in Poland. Poles also contributed £1.9 billion per year to the British exchequer. Some Central Europeans admittedly did not fare so well and contributed to the number of homeless or became involved on the fringes of crime, but overwhelmingly the arrival of these EU citizens as a great success. . Then with time many of them have set up families and we know that in London schools alone this year we have as many as 18000 Polish-speaking children helping their parents integrate more easily into British society. Like many other immigrant families the Central Europeans contribute to the rich cultural fabric of this country and are largely an integrated part of the UK economy. This is a repeat of earlier gifted immigrants such as the Flemish in the XIIth century, the Huguenots in the XVIIth century, as well as Indians from East Africa and Hong Kong Chinese in the last century. They endured resentment and prejudice at times, especially during periods of high unemployment and economic depression, but despite the cultural challenges emanating from their arrival and their culture, the ultimate value of their input into the British economy was never in doubt. It is interesting to note that however unpopular the decision was to allow Indians to come to the UK with Commonwealth passports after being expelled by the East African regimes in Uganda and Kenya, the Conservative government never once expressed any official apology for having inviting them. And rightly so. Now the Labour leadership has made this calamitous statement and have encouraged many of those people who resent the presence of Poles and other Central Europeans in this country to point a finger at them or their children in school and say “You came here by mistake – go back to your country”. In a period of economic hardship it could encourage further retribution against these new settlers in media attacks as well as verbal and physical abuse and discrimination. Ed Miliband has expressed a need by the Labour Party to listen to the anxieties of working people in this country over immigration and rightly points out that public concern is raised by the presence and continued arrivals of both EU and non-EU visitors in this country. He rightly condemns the “phony debate” with which the Coalition Government is seeking to allay people’s fears by concentrating on capping non-EU arrivals and limiting the amount of foreign students. I was acutely aware of this inability for the politicians to communicate properly with the public and pointed out in a BBC interview last year that “Poles remain the dark horse in the immigration debate”. Ed Miliband asks why Labour had not listened to “people’s concerns”, but he might just as well have asked why did the government not listen to the concerns of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain. He praises the work of the trade unions, in fighting for a minimum wage and minimum standards in working conditions, which we acknowledged readily at the time but the then government failed to address the exploitation of many Central Europeans in work places where the unions had no access and failed to give enough scope to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to operate in the highly exploitative hotel and entertainment industries. Many of the measures that Ed Miliband now suggests in his speech are sensible and echo the earlier observations of the Federation of Poles. Like the Federation he demands proper monitoring of the numbers of arrivals and those employed and proper enforcement of legislation on minimum pay and working conditions. In the current critical economic situation he is right to increase transitional controls on workers from newer member states of the EU and insist that specialist recruitment agencies should not concentrate solely on non-UK taxpayers. Also he is right to require an improvement in the quality of training and qualifications in order to make young British citizens more responsive to the needs of the British economy and to wean them off relying exclusively on welfare benefits. His wish to monitor firms that have more than 25% migrant workers is understandable as long as measures taken as a result are not discriminatory against current foreign workers who are legally employed here. What he has not stated is the continuous need to encourage these new EU citizens to integrate further into British society by facilitating their knowledge of the English language and ensuring the presence of representatives of these communities in any national or local advisory bodies concerning national minorities or migrants in this country. But all this could have been said and an apology issued for the administrative errors and lack of candour over the issue of EU and non-EU immigration without stating that the decision to allow them to work in this country was wrong. It suggests that the Labour leadership wanted to leap further than the Conservatives into allaying the concerns and prejudices of an electorate frightened by further loss of jobs and social tension. Where Conservatives had largely led a whispering campaign against the decision to allow all EU citizens access to the UK market, labour wanted to go a step further by making an official recantation of its decision. Such a statement undermines the moral legitimacy of hundreds of thousands of individuals and families legally settled in this country for many years and contributing to its GDP and opens up the possibility of community and media hostility and discrimination against them. It is also less likely to encourage the many thousands of Polish electors in this country (92,000 in London alone) to vote Labour in future council elections. Wiktor MoszczyƄski, Former spokesperson of Federation of Poles in Great Britain and Author of “Hello, I’m Your Polish Neighbour” London 23rd June 2012 48 Inglis Road, London W5 3RW - tel 0208 992 7816