A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the population density in England, and I hinted at something else worth writing about. Since there’s not much else on the go here (a two-day trip to Legoland is hardly worth a mention), I’ll fill in the blank space with my thoughts on the subject of immigration.
It’s been in the news almost constantly since we arrived, although that might have something to do with me being overly aware of it (don’t you ever get the feeling that the news is about you?). It’s a subject that divides local opinion rather sharply, although not quite the way you might imagine. Almost everyone agrees that there’s too much of it, but nobody’s willing to come out and say what they really feel about the issue (because saying something Politically Incorrect is a capital offence in this country).
Part of the problem is that there are many sources of immigration, most of which the UK can do nothing about. Under EU law, there’s a free movement of labour between all the participating European countries, and so someone from Poland can’t be stopped from coming here and finding a job (even at the expense of an Englishman). There’s a lot of asylum seekers finding their way in, who can’t really be turned away. And there are loads of students from all over the world coming to study at UK universities. Lastly, there are people like me – skilled immigrants who’ve come here to work.
Now, immigration is a difficult subject to work with, because each of those categories touches different buttons:
- There are the anti-Europeans, who resent the way that Britain has cosied up to Europe, losing some of its sovereignty in the process. These are the people who would vehemently oppose joining the Eurozone, or being incorporated into the Schengen area. They are numerous, and have a strong voice. These people would be complaining about the European migrants (mostly Eastern Europe, interestingly enough).
- Then there are the anti-asylum seekers. This is a little touchier, because it makes you sound like a heartless brute. But, (they claim), under international law, an asylum seeker is supposed to apply for asylum in the first safe country he comes to. The chances of that being the UK are remote.
- Nobody seems to complain too much about the students. My guess is that as long as they’re paying the fees, they’re helping to prop up a system which is (in my opinion) somewhat oversubscribed. The sheer number (140) of universities is mind-boggling, even when the population is taken into account. Some significant savings could be achieved by combining some of the smaller ones. But I digress…
- Nobody complains too much about the last category either (I’ve certainly not experienced any negative attitudes about my presence in the country). However, it’s the one area that they can control. And so they’ve largely shut it down.
Now, you may be wondering whether the numbers justify all the fuss. So here’s a few statistics:
- Immigration amounts to just under 600,000 people a year, with about 350,000 a year leaving. That results in a net inward migration of around 250,000 per year.
- The current government made a loud campaign promise to cut net immigration “from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands”
- Of those 250,000 a year, about 50,000 are Europeans, and 20,000 a year are asylum seekers. It’s difficult to split the remainder between students and workers, but in general, students outnumber workers by 5 to 4. So you’re looking at about 100,000 students, and about 80,000 workers.
So – the government is aiming to cut the 250,000 down by more than 150,000, by targeting an area that only contributes 80,000 to the problem. Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to be achieving a whole lot of success.
Now, because at this stage, you’re probably still wondering what the fuss is about, here’s the key word: benefits. Nearly all long-term residents in the UK have recourse to public benefits such as the dole and the housing benefit. The former gives you an allowance to cover living expenses, but the latter is the lucrative one – it’ll pay for your rent if you’re unemployed. Without limit.
So the opportunity exists for the unscrupulous homeowner to make a fortune. All you need to do is set up a shed in your back garden and find an unemployed person willing to live there. You then apply to the council on their behalf, who then pay you the housing benefit to the level that you desire. There’s plenty of people in London pulling in £600 – £700 a month for an unplumbed, unelectrified wendy house in the back yard. I know of people living in luxury flats in Canary Wharf who are on the dole. All paid for by the government, with no cost to the person living there. The result: an incentive to immigrate, a landlord getting rich, and a taxpayer getting irate.
And meanwhile, the government makes deep cuts in all the wrong places in a desperate attempt to save money. Which doesn’t help solve the problem, and only serves to alienate and exasperate those who should be benefiting the most from the benefits on offer.
To me, the solutions are reasonably obvious (well, some of them, at least), but every one is a button that brings a vocal response from a powerful lobby group. It’s somewhat amusing as a largely unaffected outsider, but the tension is building. In these current times of hardship, it’s starting to get a little bit hot in the kitchen.