Green Party leader Natalie Bennett has criticised the “race to the bottom on immigration” from the three main parties.
She addressed the issue in a speech at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
Natalie said: “Only about one in ten new jobs goes to an immigrant. Our minimum wage, which should underpin a balanced labour market is inadequately enforced. It’s also well below the living wage level at which it should be set.
“And whilst firms are being allowed to increasingly use zero-hours contracts and forced casualisation, no one can build a life on the jobs they offer. These are problems caused by bad labour market regulation, not immigration.”
Here’s the full speech:
You might expect the Labour opposition to be taking a stand but, on the contrary, they are pandering to it. The Labour Party has not apologised for taking Britain into the Iraq War, has not apologised for failing to regulate the bankers, has not apologised for the fact that inequality rose during its 13 years in power – but it has apologised for its immigration policy while in government.
But back to today … responding to the Home Office study in an interview with The Telegraph, Mark Harper, the immigration minister, said: “It emphasises the importance of protecting our public services and taking a robust approach against those who come here to exploit our welfare system.”
I entirely agree with the first half of that sentence – although ironically his government is destroying rather than protecting our essential services thanks to its austerity policies and its ideological attachment to privatisation.
As for the second half of the sentence – it’s a total non sequitur, since the survey was not about benefits. Far worse, however, it’s yet another example of the kind of misleading, nasty and damaging rhetoric we have come to expect from this Government.
Another example of them peddling the claim that immigrants are attracted to Britain by benefits. There is simply no evidence that this is the case.
You don’t just have to believe me. The European Commission, not known for picking fights with national government/member states has accused Home Secretary Theresa May of inventing the problem of welfare tourism without any proof that EU foreign nationals are abusing free movement rules to claim benefits.
The argument doesn’t stack up in relation to asylum-seekers either. Research commissioned by the Home Office concluded that there was no evidence to suggest detailed knowledge about the UK benefits system – those fleeing persecution usually go where events take them, and when individuals do seek out Britain, it is usually because they already have family or friends here.
Nor is Britain especially a target. In 2011, we received 25,500 asylum applicants. France gets twice as many – and Britain is 14th out of 27 when looking at asylum seekers per head of population.
So deconstructing the Government’s latest report on the impact of immigration is not just an academic exercise. It’s critical for honest political debate here in Britain.
The facts of immigration
Let’s start by setting the facts straight. It’s very easy to succumb to Government rhetoric and the rightwing media, to think that immigration is one of Britain’s chief problems. Or that immigration has entirely changed the face and culture of our nation.
A study out this week found that generally, Britons think 31 per cent of the population is made up of recent immigrants. In fact the figure is 13% – representing about 7.5 million people. Black and Asian people are perceived to make up 30 per cent of the population, when the figure is closer to 11 per cent.
Turning the lens around, about 5.5 million British people live in other countries around the globe. So the overall rate of exchange isn’t that off balance.
Secondly, it’s important to acknowledge the contribution immigrants make to Britain. The NHS could not operate without immigrant workers. Our social care system and our education system depend significantly on immigrant workers.
If you measure this contribution in financial terms, there is a significant net benefit thanks to tax and national insurance contributions made by migrants. Overall, they make a net contribution to the UK economy of £3 billion. And because they are often young, healthy, and skilled, their use of public services is limited – much lower than that of the general population.
Immigrants don’t just contribute economically, either. The grandmother who moves to Britain to be with her family – she might be providing childcare, or simply stability, knowledge, the experience of a lifetime. The partner who moves to Britain as a “house husband” brings not only time and love, but also a different and valuable cultural experience, life experience. Whilst the foreign student enriches the lives of local classmates, by way of a unique set of experiences and outlook.
The political climate
So where is this attack on immigrants coming from? Politically, the answer is clear – and it has a pint in one hand and a cigar in the other!
Recently, I had the “pleasure” of being on Question Time with UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
He claimed there were 80,000 Romanians in Britain, and that the Metropolitan Police had arrested 30,000 Romanian in the last five years. This smear masquerading as fact has often been repeated – and is effective at making a point.
And yet it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
In fact, according to the Labour Force Survey, there are actually 102,000 Romanians in Britain. That’s at one point in time, the end of 2012.
The arrest figures over five years are actually less than 28,000. What’s more that’s total arrests made, not numbers of individuals arrested. . They undoubtedly include some tourists, not included in the resident figures, and some individuals arrested multiple times.
Arrests are not charges, are not convictions.
And, finally, we are talking over five years, so it’s wrong to imply, as Mr Farage does, that the figure represents a significant proportion of the current Romanian population.
Whilst the figures around broadly accurate in each instance, their manner of assembly is deeply dishonest, deeply misleading, and deeply dangerous.
I am speaking today in the Romanian Cultural Institute – and I know that this portrayal has caused deep offence and worry in Romania. I can only apologise.
I apologies too that this toxic, dangerous rhetoric from UKIP remains largely unchallenged – and instead is being pandered to.
In Britain today we are witnessing a “race to the bottom” on immigration rhetoric.
Less than two in 10 of us think that immigration is a problem for our local area, and yet about three quarters are in favour of reducing immigration. That’s the sad consequence of the vicious rhetoric.
Genuine, reasonable concerns, wrongly directed
Yes, we should acknowledge people’s real concerns about standards of living; what the future holds for our children; the problems with housing supply, with public services; the threat posed by unemployment and low wages. But in doing so let’s place the blame where it truly lies, not casually and cruelly point the finger at immigrants.
Only about one in ten new jobs goes to an immigrant. Our minimum wage, which should underpin a balanced labour market is inadequately enforced. It’s also well below the living wage level at which it should be set. And whilst firms are being allowed to increasingly use zero-hours contracts and forced casualisation, no one can build a life on the jobs they offer. These are problems caused by bad labour market regulation, not immigration.
Yes, people, particularly in the South of England, can feel their communities are overcrowded. And travelling on the London Tube too often feels like I imagine a sardine in a can does. Yes, traffic congestion is a huge problem, as well as a huge threat to health. And yes, housing costs have inflated out of control.
But there are also a million empty homes in Britain, whole streets and even suburbs gutted by depopulation in the North of England.
The congestion felt in some parts of the country is caused not by immigration, but by regional development policy failing to spread prosperity across the whole of the UK.
And, as Green Party Leader, you won’t be surprised to hear me express grave concern about Britain’s environmental impact on the world. We’re living a “three planet” lifestyle, when we only have one earth, so we urgently need to reduce our ecological footprint. But that’s not a problem caused by immigration – and it’s a challenge for the whole world, not just Britain.
Unfortunately, the Government is hell bent on putting immigration centre stage in the blame game, though. And it has decided that an effective immigration cap is part of the solution. That’s why it has promised that net immigration will be reduced “to tens of thousands” by the end of this parliament – a commitment that utterly ignores its complete lack of control over one side of the equation, namely how many people emigrate from Britain, prompted by a whole host of individual circumstances.
The Government goes on to promise that those coming into Britain will almost all be “the brightest and the best”.
In a speech this month, Tory MP Liam Fox said the government should “have a really good look at the type of people who will benefit our country and help generate wealth and prosperity”.
There’s an important question to be asked here about the value judgements being made. Is a hedge fund trader, who might have a high income, really more valuable than a carer? An arms company executive really more valuable than a beloved grandma? I don’t believe so.
It doesn’t stack up economically either. The New Economics Foundation produced an excellent study showing that, for every £1 they are paid, childcare workers generate between £7 and £9.50 worth of benefits to society. By contrast a city banker destroys £7 of social value for every pound they generate.
Fox also stressed, “Nobody should assume they have the right to come to our country because they have relatives already here” – apparently doing away in one fell swoop with the right to a family life - acknowledged internationally as a fundamental human right.
The impact of the changes
So is the Government’s message on immigration being heard by those thinking of coming to Britain?
Net migration fell to 153,000 in 2012, from 242,000 the previous year. The number of immigrants coming to Britain fell from 581,000 to 500,000, while the number of migrants leaving the country was up from 339,000 to 347,000.
The Institute of Public Policy Research think tank said this was “in large part” due to a drop in numbers of international students. It also highlights the “considerable economic cost” – conservatively estimated at £2-3 billion/year loss.
You might expect the Labour Party to be highlighting the impact of our universities losing out on all that international students have to offer, but in fact it welcomed the fall, saying the “pace and scale of immigration” had been too high. And shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant added that the government, “is not doing enough on illegal immigration, failing to deport, failing to prevent absconding”.
I doubt that’s a view shared by the many families suffering as the Government puts the screws on family reunion visas. We now have among the toughest rules in Europe.
Any British citizen who wants to sponsor his or her non-EU spouse’s visa has to be able to prove that they earn at least £18,600 a year – a figure so high that 47 percent of the British working population would have failed to meet the income level for sponsorship last year. The amount rises to £22,400 to sponsor a child and an additional £2,400 for each further child.
By the government’s own estimate, almost 18,000 British people will not be reunited with their spouse or partner each year as a result of the new rules.
Pick up your local paper and you can often read the human stories behind these statistics – individuals who’ve made relationships, formed ties, and are, understandably, bemused, confused, angered, that they can’t live together as a couple, can’t even care for their children in the country that is their home . The Government is failing these individuals and failing society.
These rules are unconscionable. They are unfair and arbitrary. And they must be changed.
I live in central London around the corner from the Somers Town Coffee House, once the haven for Hugenot refugees from France, fleeing religious persecution. It’s one visual reminder of Britain’s proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those who need it, particularly political refugees.
But today that reputation is under threat. It’s a subject that I’ll be addressing in detail another time, but one statistic is telling – in 2012, 27 per cent of initial asylum refusals were overturned on appeal.
As the Government wages war on immigration, asylum seekers are amongst those caught up in the cross fire. None more so than LGBQT people facing persecution around the world and on whose behalf the Green Party has long campaigned for full recognition of the gender aspects of persecution.
The impact of government policies, policy proposals and rhetoric is also felt in some unanticipated places.
Recently the government – Liberal Democrats to the fore – floated a trial balloon suggesting that visitors (not immigrants) from a number of overseas countries, including India, could be forced to lay down a £3,000 bond, to be repaid when they left the country.
I appeared on a major Indian evening television show where this was a topic of debate, to explain this didn’t reflect the views of all Britons. I was almost buried under a torrent of anger. Indians were insulted, they were angry, and they were threatening to not visit and to withhold investment flows into Britain. Unsurprisingly, David Cameron, who recently visited India with an ‘open for business’ message, rapidly withdrew the proposal – but not before substantial damage had been done.
Using immigration as a political football is a risky business.
And further more, it has real world, serious, even potentially deadly consequences. The declaring of open rhetorical season on migrants is a signal. It’s a signal to the drunk man in the pub, who wants a target for his abusive tongue, and quite possibly his fists, and is now increasingly likely to find it in someone who is, or who he perceives to be, an immigrant. It’s a signal to the irate woman on the overcrowded bus, ready to launch a tirade at a fellow passenger who might be an immigrant.
In 2011, Green Party conference chose to send a different kind of signal by passing a motion of opposition to the government’s cap on immigration.
It said we should stop “treating those who are not native to the UK as a problem”. Today, it’s important to restate that.
We have a responsibility to say “enough”. To acknowledge that we need to welcome immigrants, to remember that they are not economic pawns, but people, with families, with friends, with feelings – who deserve and are entitled to respect and respectful treatment.
Cultural diplomacy begins at home.