Green Party leader attacks "race to the bottom" on immigration

12 July 2013

In a speech given at the International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy today (July 12, 2013) Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, attacked the "race to the bottom" on immigration.

Speaking in the Romanian Cultural Institute she condemned the "toxic, dangerous rhetoric" on immigration and expressed her anger that it "is not being challenged – instead it is being pandered to."

That in terms of the political debate "We have in Britain a “race to the bottom” on immigration rhetoric."

Full text below.

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This month, the Home Office, working under the direction of our Tory-Liberal Democrat Government, put out a report on the impact of immigration. It conducted a survey of local authorities and service providers, and found that the presence of immigrants was likely to lead to longer waiting times at GP surgeries, pressure on the number of primary school places due to the tendency of migrants to have more children than the native-born population and “poor quality, overcrowded accommodation, inflated rents, exploitations by unscrupulous landlords…”

Exactly the same data could have been taken, and looked at differently. Longer waiting times at GP surgeries – that reflects the failure of the government to provide adequate investment in the cost-effective, efficient publicly owned NHS, and the disruption caused by the wholesale, top-down reorganisation of the organisation by the current and previous governments, despite their lack of a mandate for the act.

Pressure on primary school places – the failure to make adequate provision for the known number of children, and the misdirection of money into areas where there isn’t need due to the ideological attachment of the Education Secretary to “free” schools.

Poor quality, overcrowded accommodation and exploitation – Britain’s longterm failure to build adequate housing, particularly social housing, and failure to regulate landlords and letting agents, to the point where protests against their abstractions are growing.

In short, it’s simple, the government is scapegoating immigrants instead of acknowledging its own failings and that of the former Labour government.

They are taking the understandable anger of the British public at the shortage and high cost of housing, at the underfunding of public transport and health services, at struggle to find a school place for your child, and trying to direct that to one group of British people.

It’s pernicious, it’s dangerous, and it needs to be challenged.

You might expect the Labour opposition to be standing up to this scapegoating, but no, instead 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 in its 13 years in power – but it has apologised for its immigration policy while in government.

But back to today… The Telegraph newspaper quoted Mark Harper, the immigration minister, as saying of the study: "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 unfortunately this government is, through its policy of austerity and ideological attachment to privatisation, cutting a giant swathe through our essential services.

The second half of the sentence – well it is a total non sequiteur, since the survey was not about benefits, but worse, much worse, a misleading claim. 

We’ve seen much focus in recent months from this government about the claim that immigrants are attracted to Britain by benefits. There is simply no evidence of this claim. 

You don’t have to just believe me, you can go to the European Commission, not known for picking fights with member governments, which has accused Home Secretary Theresa May of inventing the problem of welfare tourism without providing any proof that EU foreign nationals are abusing free movement rules to claim benefits.

And as for asylum-seekers, research commissioned by the Home Office concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that they had detailed knowledge about the UK benefits system – when fleeing persecution, they usually go where events take them, and when they do seek out Britain, it is usually because they already have family or friends here. And Britain is not especially a target. In 2011, the UK 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.

The deconstruction of this report is no academic exercise. It’s a critical issue of political debate in Britain.

 

The facts of immigration

First, it’s important to set the facts straight. It’s very easy to follow the rhetoric of the government and the rightwing media, and think that immigration is one of Britain’s chief problems. Or that immigration has entirely changed the face and culture of Britain. 

A study out this week found that generally, Britons think 31 per cent of the population is recent immigrants. In fact the figure is 13% - representing about 7.5 million people. Black and Asian people are thought to make up 30 per cent of the population, when the figure is closer to 11 per cent.

Turn the lens around, and about 5.5 million British people live in other countries around the globe. So the overall scale of exchange isn’t that far off balanced.

Second, it’s important to acknowledge the contribution of immigrants to Britain. The NHS could not operate without immigrant workers. Our social care system, and our education system are significantly dependent on immigrant workers.

If you measure this in financial terms, migrants make a significant net contribution to their funding through their tax and national insurance contributions. They make a net contribution to the UK economy of £3 billion. Because they are often young, healthy, and skilled, their use of public services is limited – much lower than that of the general population. 

But of course their contribution isn’t only through employment, whether they are young or old. The grandmother who moves to Britain to be with her family – she might be providing childcare, or she might simply be providing the solidity, the knowledge, the experience of a lifetime. The partner who moves to Britain to be a “house husband” brings not only time and love, but also the cultural experience of a different life experience. The foreign student brings to their local course a whole host of different experiences, knowledge and skills to their local classmates, to the enrichment of all.

 

The political climate

So where is this attack on immigrants coming from? Politically, the answer is clear. Recently, I had the “pleasure” of being on Question Time with UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

He said there were 80,000 Romanians in Britain, and that the Metropolitan Police made nearly 30,000 Romanian arrests in the last five years. As a smear, it has clearly been effective, and often used. 

Actually the figure for Romanians in Britain is, based on the Labour Force Survey, there are around 102,000 Romanians are Britain. That’s at one point in time, the end of 2012.

The arrest figures are over five years – and are actually less than 28,000. And they are only arrests – not individuals. And they undoubtedly include some tourists, not included in the resident figures. Undoubtedly there are some individuals arrested multiple times – and arrests are not charges, not convictions … and we are talking over five years.

The figures around broadly accurate in each individual case, but their manner of assembly deeply dishonest, deeply misleading, and deeply dangerous.

I am speaking today in the Romanian Cultural Institute – and I know that there is offence and worry in Romania about the way its people have been painted in Britain, by Mr Farage, by our rightwing media. I can only apologise.

Yet this toxic, dangerous rhetoric from UKIP is not being challenged – instead it is being pandered to. We have in Britain a “race to the bottom” on immigration rhetoric.

Less than two in 10 people in Britain think that immigration is a problem in their local area, but about three quarters are in favour of reducing immigration. That’s the product of this rhetoric. 

 

Genuine, reasonable concerns, wrongly directed

We need to acknowledge people’s real concerns about their standards of living, the future of their children, the problems of housing, of public services, of unemployment and low wages, but we need to lay the blame where it truly lies, not casually, cruelly, dangerously, blame immigrants.

About one in ten new jobs goes to an immigrant. And we have a minimum wage which should be a floor under a balanced labour market. Yet this is inadequately enforced, too low (well below the living wage level at which it should be set), and firms are being allowed to increasingly use zero-hours contracts and forced casualization to provide jobs that no one can build a life on. This is an issue of labour market regulation, not immigration.

We need to acknowledge too that people, particularly in the South of England, are feeling crowded. The London Tube too often feels like you might imagine a sardine in a can does. Traffic congestion is a huge problem, and a huge health threat. Housing cost inflation is out of control.

But there are also a million empty homes in Britain, whole streets and even suburbs tormented by depopulation in the North of England. The congestion comes not due to immigration, but the failure of regional development policy to spread prosperity across the whole of the UK, not just concentrate it in London and environs.

And there is of course grave concern about Britain’s environmental impact on the world. We’re living a “three planet” lifestyle, when we only have one earth. But was Green Party policy makes clear, what we have to talk about is our ecological footprint – we need to get back within the planet’s limits, but that’s true not just of the UK, but the world. 

 

Immigration cap

The government has established an effective immigration cap – promising that net immigration would be reduced “to tens of thousands” by the end of this parliament. Of course this ignores the fact that it has no control whatsoever over one side of this equation – immigration from Britain, the product of a whole host of individual circumstances.

More, it is promising 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”. “Nobody should assume they have the right to come to our country because they have relatives already here” - so there goes the right to a family life, acknowledged as a human right…

And more, there’s an important question to be asked about the value judgements here – 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 – indeed the New Economics Foundation did 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.

 

The impact of the changes

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.

But asked the BBC to explain, the Institute of Public Policy Research think tank said this was “in large part” due to a drop in the numbers of international students, with “considerable economic cost” – estimated at £2-3 billion/year (conservatively). 

You might expect the Labour Party to be highlighting, focusing on that cost, that loss of fees for our universities, the loss of opportunities for home students to study with a rich range of fellow students, but no, Labour 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". 

 

Family reunion

The tightest of the toughening of government rules has been in 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 - 47 percent of the British working population last year would have failed to meet the income level for sponsorship. 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 be prevented from being reunited with their spouse or partner in the UK annually as a result of the new rules.

Pick up your local paper and you’ll often read these stories – individuals who’ve made relationships, formed ties, and are understandly bemused, confused, angered, that they can’t live together as a couple, can’t even care for their children in their home country. We are failing these individuals – failing our society by creating this situation.

These rules are unconscionable. They are unfair and arbitrary. And they must be changed.

 

Proud tradition of asylum

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 refuge to those who need it, particularly political refugees.

But that reputation today is under threat. It’s a subject that I’ll be speaking on another time, but one statistic is telling - in 2012, 27 per cent of initial asylum rulings were overturned on appeal. 

And the Green Party has long campaigned against the failure to recognise gender aspects of persecution. The system also fails to acknowledge the persecution faced by LGBQT people in many countries around the world.

 

Global damage

The impact of the rhetoric of immigration, of government policies and policies proposals, stretches far beyond immigrants, prospective immigrants and their families.

Recently the government – the Liberal Democrats to the fore - floated a trial balloon suggesting that visitors (not immigrants) from a number of states, including India, could be forced to pay a £3,000 bond, to be repaid when they left the country. 

I went 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, and was almost buried under a torrent of anger. Indians were insulted, they were angry, and they were threatening not just not to visit but to withdrew investment flows into Britain. It was unsurprising that David Cameron, who recently visited India with an ‘open for business’ message, quickly reversed the policy, but damage has definitely been done. 

 

Conclusion

In 2011, Green Party conference passed a motion opposing 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.

The approach to immigration of the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour distracts from our real problems – the failure of George Osborne’s policy of austerity, acknowledged now even by that well-known “champion “ of government spending the International Monetary Fund, the deep damage being done to our social fabric by the government’s ideologically driven assault on our public services and the social safety net provided by benefits.

And further more, it is going to have real world, serious, even potentially deadly consequences. The declaring of open rhetorical season on migrants by the majority of our politicians 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 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.

We have a responsibility to say “enough”. To acknowledge that we need to welcome immigrants, to regard them not as economic pawns, but people, with families, with friends, with feelings – who deserve, and must get respect, and respectful treatment. 

Cultural diplomacy begins at home.

 

ENDS


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