Brexit has renewed the debate around immigration. It is sad that the debate through the referendum was coloured with ever-increasing emotive language, and once again those on the Right took advantage of this opportunity to promote rhetoric of division. It is clear to me, not just from what I have read but my experience during Remain campaign, that for many, if not the majority, of Leave voters immigration was the primary motivator.
Put aside criticism of the leadership of the Labour Party with regard to their energy and commitment to Remain but they did fail was to address the issue of immigration. Despite every election since 2010 highlighting this as an increasing concern we still have failed to provide a robust challenge to the many false and alarmist claims by UKIP but more importantly to provide policies that address issues such as healthcare and education provision, building more homes and also to promote to economic and social benefits which immigration has wrought.
Not every person who voted Brexit is racist but many people accepted commitments made as face value that a Leave vote would immediately stop immigration, that additional funding would be provided to the NHS. I would suggest that perhaps this vote was in fact lost in May 2015 in terms of credibility of an alternative offer. In Wisbech immigration has consistently been the number one concern since 2010, it beggars belief there is any need to further discuss what the concerns are when actually we should be investing in the solution…..together.
The long running debate on immigration shows no sign of ending soon. A discussion which remains largely fuelled by emotion – and is often emotive – whereas the solution requires engagement based upon rational discussion using real data. The rhetoric of the Right promises answers but of which the practicalities – let alone the ethics – would not work in a modern democracy. Despite official denials and smart campaigning the reality is that much discussion off-piste is offensive, it is racist and mostly it is intended.
My starting point is that we should welcome anyone into our community who positively contributes to the greater good and respects their neighbours. No reasonable person would deny anyone with an ambition to build a better life for themselves or especially for their family. Just as British people we might have wished good luck to those we have waved off to Australia, New Zealand, or the estimated 2 million Brits who live in Europe, so I welcome people from Eastern Europe and beyond.
There is no doubting, not just the anecdotal but the evidence, that a large number of incidents and crimes in areas where there is a high migrant population are due to migrants. But consider that a large number of the migrants are single men, 20-30 years of age, and work is mostly low-paid and often not secure the risk indicators are significant. I would suggest that in consideration of this data we need to consider class as much as any other identifier. Most would accept that causes of criminality are many fold but can be summarised as either driven by poverty or a combination of drivers within the individual illustrated by behaviour.
This is not excusing any behaviour but merely observation, perhaps an explanation of, what we have experienced or “heard”. Those who cause offence because of their behaviour or conduct, and more pointedly those who commit crime should receive measured and appropriate responses through law. In addition, where it is linked to migrants, most people would also expect that if you repeatedly offend your hosts then you might expect a swift return to whence you came – and I am very sympathetic to this. Does this not also apply to young Britons when abroad; some of their behaviour is every bit unacceptable).
I feel I have to keep underlining some points – I’m not excusing, or reducing the harm done in Wisbech (as much as by reputation that incident) – but important that concerns are set in context. Whoever commits the crime should be dealt with promptly and fairly. Certainly with regard to cause and effect we experience many social ills, and report poorly on many social and health indicators. What our current situation should dictate to the Police & Crime Commissioner is the need for sufficient police officers to both deter and apprehend. The increase in Wisbech’s population, regardless of circumstance, alone should justify the higher police numbers and certainly a higher profile.
During previous election campaigns a theme I raised was the apparent failure of local employers in exercising influence over staff conduct, or taking responsibility for what is the end result of their concerted efforts to encourage migrant workers to our town. Not for one moment do I believe there is any deliberate negligence, but neither have I seen evidence of positive work done in this area either. I would welcome the large employers working together to establish good practice in the recruitment and induction of migrant workers, and also to provide support and challenge when there are problems or issues. I think it would be in their favour to engage with residents and explain what they do for their employees, and perhaps have a greater presence in community events.
The migrant communities – certainly those who have recently arrived – remain separate and perhaps distant. Perhaps with some of the negative press that is not surprising. There would be enormous benefit with the emergence of some genuine community leaders who could represent interests, concerns and provide the much needed advocacy role. There will be many English folk who have formed relationships, marriages and friendships with migrants but until individuals take a more active role in public life it is difficult for there to be genuine wider respect and understanding between all the different groups. I would certainly continue to encourage business, sports clubs and local government to be more positive and determined to reach out, and provide opportunities for people to meet and form relationships and understanding.
There have been efforts made in the past – and there is a place for multicultural events – but on their own they are but a flash however much fun is had. There needs to be strategy which pulls together all the available resources and pulls together the stakeholders – churches, employers, landlords, schools – to make the plan live in all aspects of our lives. I propose that Fenland District Council should have lead role here in terms of the scope of their responsibilities, not to say they do all the work but there needs to a lead and some resource is inevitable – but I would again argue that the large employers would benefit from sponsorship opportunity here.
I would though like to highlight the valuable work done by the Rosmini Centre; whilst it provides the kernel of a migrant community hub what is does for crisis and welfare support is essential especially at this time. I would hope in future they might be able to focus on more of the positive work they do, promoting culture and friendship.
Successive Governments failed to resource local authorities to deal with the initial influx of migrants from Eastern Europe. There was little chance to prepare (I was a school Governor at the time and clearly remember the denial by Norfolk County Council the reality of the emerging issue – refusing to acknowledge increased Eastern European children in class as better evidence than Govt projections some 18 months out of date – incredible). This time the many issues and challenges have been clear to all. In my view it remains the case that schools, social housing and health remain under strain but I would again ask that these are not the fault of the family who live next door. What we should be doing is campaigning and voting to encourage greater investment in these services – refusing immigration (which we cannot do anyway) would not help the situation today.
There might be a case to change immigration policy, or perhaps we need to look at how we train and educate people to diminish opportunities for others. Maybe there is a need to review welfare payments – although evidence shows East European migrants more likely to work/less lightly to claim welfare than UK comparators. But today we need immigration to succeed, the people who live here now must thrive so that we do. We do not have enough people to deliver the health and social care – an ageing population which is not producing enough people to either share the tax burden or to do the essential work of looking after the elderly and vulnerable in particular. Equally, we don’t have enough people to pull asparagus or process our poultry – it should be clear that if we do not have enough labour then ultimately we will lose these jobs completely as corporations move operations abroad. We could find that the chicken kievs made in Wisbech being made…in Kiev. These are the questions which the Far Right will not address yet consequences would be serious and immediate to us than any imagined threat.
Despite ridiculous and offensive remarks about repatriating people we cannot “turn the clock back”. The many issues we face may only be resolved when there is dialogue, understanding and support. The market towns of The Fens need opportunity, they need investment and genuine leadership. We should celebrate our diversity as a strength, after all – and think on – what is the alternative? Immigration should not be about individuals, we should not make it personal, and neither should a whole group of people be responsible for the actions of a stranger just because they hold the same passport. Our community should be designated not by our differences, but whether we are “in” or “out” of it.