Politicians blame immigrants for their own mistakes

Published by The Independent (15th December, 2014)

Myths and mantras are swirling around the increasingly-toxic immigration debate as mainstream parties flounder in the face of Ukip’s insurgency. These include the old favourite that no-one is ever allowed to discuss the issue due to political correctness, when papers and political discourse have been swamped by the subject for years. Or claims the British public was never asked about allowing in floods of foreigners, despite elections contested by parties displaying a range of stances from sympathy to outright hostility.

But perhaps the biggest falsehood, frequently heard reverberating around the Westminster echo chamber, is that immigrants undermine Britain’s public services. We hear this charge from across the spectrum as panicking parties chase after Nigel Farage, the Pied Piper of pessimism. Yet the truth is rather different. If there is a cover-up committed by Westminster as large chunks of the electorate seem to believe, it is by politicians abusing the issue of immigration to hoodwink voters and hide their own deficiencies.

Take the health service. There is regular tiresome talk of crackdowns on ‘health tourism’, although the young European migrants moving to this country are far less likely to be a drain on health care than the one million mainly-elderly Britons who have moved to Spain. Indeed, some Polish acquaintances say they fly home even for dental treatment rather than risk our rickety health services.

Yet as Stephen Nickell from the Office for Budget Responsibility reminded MPs last week, the NHS would be in dire straits without migrant staff. They have come from more than 200 countries. More than one quarter of doctors and one in seven of all qualified clinical staff in hospitals and surgeries are foreign nationals – along with a huge number of carers (as I have seen from grateful personal experience with my profoundly disabled daughter).

Instead of condemning immigrants for threatening the welfare state, politicians should be praising them to the heavens for supporting the nation’s most precious public service. And this is ignoring the dry economic reality that they contribute more to the exchequer than they take out, as shown by scores of studies, as well as being more likely than native-born Britons to set up businesses and less likely to claim benefits.

Then there are schools. One of the most remarkable recent stories in global education has been the astonishing turnaround of London schools, improving much faster than those elsewhere in the country. The performance gap between rich and poor children has also narrowed, with pupils from some of the capital’s impoverished areas now outperforming their peers from far more affluent areas. For all the scaremongering about schools under pressure from migrants, standards soared at a time when the capital bore the brunt of Britain’s recent heavy influx of newcomers.

Academics are grappling with this phenomenon. And their studies indicate immigration lies behind this transformation, as well as helping drive London’s economic and cultural dynamism. One report found an arrival of Polish pupils lifted overall school results and boosted classmates’ performance, even when they had little or no English. Another from Bristol University last month concluded the improvements were down to diversity, saying schools with high numbers of ethnic minority and migrant pupils gained best results because of their higher aspirations.

So much for Farage’s claims that immigrants are wrecking public services and ruining the quality of life in Britain. In truth, they are doing the precise opposite – propping up the health service he professes suddenly to revere and driving up school standards. Perhaps this was what Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, meant when he spoke on the radio recently about children with poor English changing the character of schools? Sadly, I fear not; it was just another salvo in a crude political arms race.

Clearly there are pressures when a country’s population increases fast – although our rise is also down to welcome increases in life expectancy and birthrates. Yet migrants have become the proxy for any problem, the easy target for almost any issue. But if there are too few doctors’ surgeries and primary schools, whose fault is that? Who should be blamed for decades of failure to build enough houses? Or for the low skills of too many school leavers and the shameful poverty of expectation that failed generations of working class kids? Immigrants contributing to our prosperity and public services – or politicians who failed to plan for the future?

This stench of hypocrisy wafts perhaps most strongly over the issue of housing. For at least two decades, Britain has been building about half the number of new homes needed; last year, for instance, only 110,000 of the 250,000 needed new homes were completed. Yet despite a few tentative attempts by the coalition, politicians have ducked difficult – and potentially unpopular – questions over planning, social housing and green belts, resulting in severe shortages of homes, soaring prices and rising rents.

Now immigrants get the the blame and there are complaints of over-crowding; in fact, less than one-tenth of England is urban development and nearly half this is gardens and parks. There has been a slight lift in house building this year – although few will thank those Polish plumbers and Estonian electricians doing much of the work. Sadly, it is far easier to scapegoat foreigners than it is to face up to political failure and tackle tough questions on public services.

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