Comment: No room at the inn for sensible immigration policies
Kneejerk anti-immigration rhetoric is ruling the day – and it's a very ugly kind of politics made even worse by the coalition's spending cuts agenda.
They sound like completely separate news stories. On the one hand, deficit reduction leads to spending cuts, leading to a new, more miserable kind of Britain. On the other, a right-wing government fighting a right-wing threat from Ukip on immigration.
The two stories have been carried on by their separate momentums this month. The autumn statement distracted us all from the fact the cuts are still, believe it or not, yet to bite, by focusing on GDP numbers that mean nothing to ordinary people.
Last week, David Cameron brought forward the date after which new immigrants would have to wait three months before claiming benefits to January 1st 2014.
That is a politically important date, because it's the first day on which restrictions on arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria are lifted. Expect the word 'floodgates' to be used in right-wing newspapers' headlines.
This approach is misguided. Most immigrants don't actually claim benefits; more arrive to work. They pay their taxes. They make a contribution to society.
In fact, figures from the Department for Work and Pensions reveal more than six per cent of people who were foreign nationals when they arrived on these shores now come working-age benefits, compared to over 16 per cent for those born in the UK.
Reality isn't very important to politicians when they find their voters telling them on the doorstep that 'immigrants are stealing benefits'. The issue was massive in the 2010 election – and played a big part in New Labour's failure to defend its administration of the system.
So now all three parties are happy to talk about benefit-bashing of immigrants. It is arguably Ukip's biggest impact on policy in Britain: the resonance of the issue with the right-wing of the Tory party has made it essential for Cameron to strike a hard line against those phantom benefit claimants.
Actually, as a report out today from the Institute for Public Policy Research points out, the immigration wave of 2014 will not be the same as the one in 2004. Back then, immigrants from eight countries were allowed full freedom of movement to the UK, which was one of just three countries to allow full access to the labour market at the same time. This time round, Romanians and Bulgarians have more choice. Alternative options like Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands are open to them. And Romanians and Bulgarians have been allowed to live and work here since 2007, anyway.
Here's what Alex Glennie, a senior research fellow at the IPPR, has to say:
The past decade has shown that the UK;s economy and society are flexible enough to adapt to and benefit from European migration flows, as long as the pressure points they create are quickly identified and addressed. There is little to suggest that these lessons have been learned and applied in the run up to January 1st, but even now it is not too late to take some practical steps to alleviate any issues that might arise.
What she's recommending is the revival of the Migration Impacts Fund, a pot of cash set up in 2009 (far too late to make a difference in voters' minds for New Labour, as it turned out). This sought to alleviate the effect of immigrants in hotspots where they were having an unusually big effect on specific communities.
What was so clever about this fund was that it was the immigrants themselves that paid for it. An extra £50 was added on to the visa bill, making the scheme self-funding.
This is where the cuts come in. The coalition shut down the fund in 2010 – it claimed because it wanted to spend money. That made no sense. Until, that is, it emerged that the £50 charge would not be removed.
The fund would, IPPR believes, make a very useful difference in mitigating the limited impact of the arrivals next year. Doing so would address immigration tensions where they are at their most acute – and help prevent a repeat of voter anger in 2015.
It won't happen. On this occasion politics has trumped policy – and common sense. It would have made bad headlines in 2010 for the Home Office to be 'cutting the cost of arriving in Britain'. Spending more on immigrants would probably make bad headlines in 2014, too.
That doesn't mean they're a bad idea. Quite the opposite. But as we saw last week, the government isn't interested in good ideas entering the immigration debate. It is about xenophobia and suspicion and paranoia – and how voters can be fooled into thinking ministers are doing something.
This is what happens when spending cuts and immigration collide. The result is depressingly predictable – and predictably depressing.
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