Politics can be a strange beast. At each of the last two general elections the Conservatives have tried to make controlled immigration a key electoral issue. In both elections we have been soundly beaten. Yet suddenly demand for permit schemes or skills tests for incoming migrants from Eastern Europe is all the rage, not least from the same government ministers who only a year ago would have branded those raising these issues as racists.
The inflow of east European migrants since the enlargement of the European Union in May 2004 has far outstripped estimates. It is essential for good community relations that there is confidence in the immigration system. This applies not only to migrant workers, of course, but also to asylum seekers and especially those incomers from predominantly Muslim countries, in view of the heightened terrorism alert.
In short, we must be able to trust government figures in relation to both migrants coming here to work and immigration more generally. It is clear that in recent years the authorities have been grasping at straws in trying to calculate with any degree of accuracy the overall numbers of people coming into this country.
Over the past two years, some 427 000 eastern Europeans registered for work here in the UK, with almost two-thirds coming from Poland alone. Here in Westminster we have seen the evidence of this influx since well before EU enlargement ? it would not be an exaggeration to say that for some years now, virtually no local pub or restaurant has been able to operate without eastern European labour. The same applies to our hotels, which require receptionists and cleaning staff, and the contribution made here by Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians and Hungarians amongst others, has been immense. The buoyant jobs market here in London allowed for absorption of these generally young people, many of whom have or will return home after a short period. These immigrants have boosted London’s economy by filling vacancies, easing wage inflation as well as contributing in both income and indirect taxes.
However, before the accession of Romania and Bulgaria next January to the EU, it is worth pausing to reflect on the possible effect of large-scale immigration from these two countries and whether this will be sustainable. Here in central London there is a paradoxical situation ? at the same time as there is seemingly limitless demand for eastern European immigrant labour, we also have the highest regional employment in the UK. I have remarked before that many of the seven and a half percent of Londoners listed as being out of work are, in truth, unemployable. Many lack the basic social or educational skills required to hold down any sort of job. Others simply refuse to undertake some of the more menial tasks that immigrants are willing to carry out. Unfortunately many of these unemployable folk live in the scarce social housing here in the Capital, which key workers in the public and private sector are crying out for ? that is the subject for another article in its own right.
More worrying still is the trend for many immigrants to work in the black economy (however sinister this may sound, this group includes cleaners and other domestic workers who many of us are happy to pay cash in hand). These workers are effectively pricing unskilled indigenous British labour out of the jobs market. The real concern if unemployment were to rise is that indigenous British, rather than migrant, labour would then find itself out of work, possibly leading to all sorts of social tensions. Whilst we all rejoice in having Polish plumbers and carpenters, many of whom are tremendously well-skilled and hard-working, their presence also has the effect of driving down wage rates in the construction industry. This results in an even stronger disincentive for home grown plumbers and carpenters to train in their craft. The same principle applies to employing vast numbers of migrants in the National Health Service. Why are nurses so comparatively badly paid? Because in the NHS they have a monopoly employer which abuses its position by driving wages further down by employing staff from overseas.
The impact of immigration on already-stretched public services must be considered as well. It is fair to say that most migrants are healthy, young workers, many of whom come to this country without dependants, and therefore are unlikely to use the health service, education or many other public services (except for housing and public transport) to any great degree. The longer term situation, of course, is somewhat different ? today’s young, carefree migrant may very well wish to stay in the UK and become tomorrow’s family man or woman, placing additional burdens on local authorities, such as Westminster City Council. In fairness, whilst the burden on these public services will fall on tax payers, their ranks will also be swelled by those migrants coming here to the UK.
The sheer scale of immigration over the past couple of years has prompted Conservatives to call for a permit scheme, demanding specific skills from migrants applying to come in from Romania and Bulgaria from 1 January next year. This call for immigration control inevitably upsets many. However, rebuilding confidence in the British immigration system is essential. In recent years it is clear that we have lost control of our borders, and any precise idea of the number of people who are living here.
Late last summer when I visited Romania, it was clear that the country had a long way to go before it was capable of making a positive contribution to the European Union. It has a large semi-skilled and unskilled labour market (employing as many people in agriculture as we did here in Britain as long ago as the 1830s) – just the sort of workers who are likely to be attracted by the prospect of relatively high wages in our construction, catering and hospitality industries. Whilst we cannot deny that European Union success requires free movement of labour within its borders, equally if a significant proportion of the 22 million Romania population were to decide to relocate to London and East Anglia (and let us not forget that for historical reasons both France and Germany will also be attractive destinations for Romanian migrants) it is likely to lead to something of a tipping point for the reasons mentioned above.
There seems to me a very strong argument for temporary restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians. This would allow us to attract workers with specific skills and also ensure that the existing migrants from Eastern Europe were allowed to bed down over a longer period of time. Similarly, it would enable the economic benefits of recent waves of migration to become more apparent. The latest Home Office figures reveal that 78 per cent of registered eastern European workers earn less than £6 an hour while only 20 per cent of all British workers earn less than this amount. It seems self-evident that a large influx of new unskilled migrants from Eastern Europe will continue to reduce the job opportunities for the existing unemployed and low paid here. In the longer term it is also essential that we devise a skilled migration policy that makes this country a more attractive place to study and work. The contribution made by migrants to our country’s prosperity will only last if we address the lack of skills amongst far too many of the indigenous population. I would have less concern about the monopolisation of construction, catering and hospitality by eastern European migrants if this country were able to properly address through further education and life-long learning the increasingly large group of home-grown Britons without the skills to move into more skilled and better paid employment.