Now Britain has a Polish Problem
Frank Field is a brave man. The MP for Birkenhead said publicly this week what many of his fellow MPs will say in private: immigration from Eastern Europe, and especially Poland, is putting their constituencies under unprecedented pressure. Any MP who raises the subject of immigration knows that he leaves himself vulnerable to accusations of racism. The Conservatives dared not even respond to Mr Field’s warning. No 10 distanced itself from him. The Liberal Democrats accused him of scaremongering.
Only Liam Byrne, the Immigration Minister, came anywhere near to acknowledging that there may be issues that need debating here, pointing out that it is one of the topics up for discussion among Labour members at a meeting this weekend. Its very inclusion shows recognition at the highest levels of the Labour Party that this is an increasingly salient issue. People in public life might shy away from discussing it, but people in pubs up and down the country do not. And the silence of Britain’s leaders plays straight into the hands of racist groups such as the British National Party.
It is the poorer inner city areas of Britain that tend to absorb migrants, and these tend to be represented by Labour MPs. And it is the lowest-skilled workers whose livelihoods are most threatened. When the EU expanded to 25 members in 2004, and Britain, the Irish Republic and Sweden decided not to exercise their right to restrict citizens of new member states from taking jobs, the Government predicted an influx of 13,000 workers a year from the new members. In fact, 329,000 registered here in the first 18 months.
To the better-off in Britain, the new army of friendly, prompt and highly skilled Polish builders and Slovenian nannies undercutting the local workforce has been a boon. But official figures have not kept pace with the influx. The chief executive of Slough Borough Council said this week that official migration figures severely underestimated the number of immigrants in the borough. The Office for National Statistics recorded 300 immigrants settling in the town in 2004, yet 9,000 new national insurance numbers have been issued in the past 18 months, only 150 of which went to Britons. Without accurate statistics, councils do not receive funding for their new populations.
Many migrants from Eastern Europe arrive on the promise of work that either dries up or fails to materialise. Unscrupulous recruitment agencies panning for people promise the earth and deliver a shared room in Erith, and a job that pays 20 pounds a week after compulsory deductions.
Which is why the MP for Crewe & Nantwich, the doughty Gwyneth Dunwoody, called a debate this week (Hansard; Westminster Hall debates; June 28) on the exploitation of workers from Eastern Europe. Some employment agencies in her constituency, she said, exploit all sorts of loopholes to get around employment rights, underpay the workers they go abroad to recruit, charge them for transport and overcrowded accommodation and prevent access to unions.
Social services are sometimes called because of difficulties involving children; schools that have planned their intakes need suddenly to accommodate and integrate large groups of immigrant children; and presumably they use health and other local services as well (although bear in mind that Eastern Europeans increasingly staff these too).
The whole amounts to an increased pressure on local services that could probably be accommodated if only national politicians were prepared to talk openly and honestly about the problem. At the moment, the locals grumble, they complain to their MP, the MP sympathises and can do nothing about it, the council is hamstrung by inaccurate national statistics and disingenuous waffle from ministers.
There is a very good news story here: that the willingness of Eastern Europeans to fill gaps in the British labour market has contributed to a period of solid economic growth without the inflationary boom that happens when the cost of employing people soars. But try telling that to the former Rover worker who cannot find a job and sees his street filled with Polish immigrants. A problem that alarms a growing number of MPs in private, antagonises the very communities most likely to feel left behind by the political system and leaves willing workers open to exploitation, is left to fester, a gift to the far Right. More Frank Fields, please.
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