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Columnists

Poles apart

Paul Vallely

Paul-Vallely.jpgI don't know whether it was supposed to be a gag or an attempted excuse. But the talk in Labour party circles, just after what came to be called Bigotgate, was that it was all down to a mishearing. The hapless Gordon Brown stepped in a puddle of something unpleasant right up to his middle in Rochdale by calling Mrs Gillian Duffy a 'bigoted woman'. The trouble was, the story went, when the Rochdale granny, speaking about eastern European immigrants, asked 'where are they flocking from' the Scots ear of the Labour leader thought it detected something more Anglo-Saxon than 'flocking'.

Either way perhaps Mr Brown might have done better to have stood his ground and suggested that Mrs Duffy - along with most of the rest of the electorate - was, if not bigoted, just plain wrong.

On doorstep after doorstep throughout the campaign immigration was the top issue I heard brought up by ordinary voters. Politicians largely side-stepped, dissembled or offered faint agreement. There were no votes in taking a different view. It was why immigration was restricted to roughly a page in each of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos. The cowardly truth the politicians did not dare speak, of course, is that the public is wrong about this. Immigration is not bad for Britain; it is good for us.

It is good for the NHS which could not function without its migrant workforce. It is good for the elderly in care homes who are nursed by immigrant workers. It is good for taxpayers who benefit from lower costs to public services.  It is good for employers in low-wage industries like fruit-picking and food packing. It is good for shoppers to whom it delivers low prices. It is good for the economy since immigration adds £6bn a year to British economic output; official statistics show that immigration boosted our economy by £1,650 per head over the past decade. It keeps inflation and interest rates down.

Despite all the truculent rhetoric about immigrants 'stealing our jobs' the unpalatable truth is that they do the low-status jobs which many Britons turn down, preferring a life of idleness on benefits. Intriguingly the supermarket chain Sainsburys told a House of Lords committee on immigration recently that the strong work ethic which motivates many foreign-born workers often rubs off on the British-born staff with whom they work. Many immigrants, like those who run the night desk in our hotels, are far more talented and highly-educated than many of those who do most of the complaining.

The notion that we are being 'swamped' with immigrants is bogus. It is true that 5.6m people have come into the UK since 1997. But 5.5m Britons have gone abroad, many of them to live in other parts of the EU. The idea that our housing and social services cannot cope is therefore a nonsense.

Of course there are winners and losers. Much of the mass arrival has been to farm work in areas like south-west England and East Anglia - parts of the country unused to large-scale immigration - which has caused some tension locally. There is not much that any government could have done about this since the European Union allows the free movement of people and therefore the influx of migrant workers after central and eastern European countries joined the European Union in 2004 could not have been prevented. (Not even the Tories, for all their dog-whistle anti-immigrant rhetoric could do anything to prevent that under EU law.) But if there is little the government can do to control the number of immigrants, it can do more to integrate them once they arrive. It should target resources to help local authorities provide additional services in these areas.

But - despite the high-profile examples, like the Romanian women who use their babies to beg by post offices and cash machine, which are so often cited in the mainstream press - the bigger picture is that immigrants are net contributors to our economy and society. Many migrant workers are young professionals with qualifications who come here to earn money and then return to their home countries. While here they pay taxes, which help fund an NHS on which, because they tend to be young and healthy, they do not make huge demands. Their taxes also help ameliorate the UK's pensions time-bomb because their contributions fund the payments of current pensions and yet most of them will not stay here to draw pensions themselves. Those who do help keep the population younger, since most of them are of child-bearing age.

None of this suits popular mythology. Immigrants are spongers on our benefits system, it says, when in fact 97 per cent have jobs. Another myth is that immigrants are responsible for increased crime. But again, despite the glee with which the media highlights Somali muggers, Romanian beggars and Moldovian prostitutes, a wide-ranging study from the Association of Chief Police Officers on crime levels among eastern European immigrants reveals that offending rates among Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian, Romanian and Bulgarian incomers are pretty much in line with the rest of the population. Another myth bites the dust.

So why did we hear none of this from our politicians during the election campaign? Even Nick Clegg, whose party had the most liberal policy on immigration with its conditional amnesty for illegal immigrants, sought at almost every turn to play that down in public debate, though after the result some felt that the 'soft on immigrants' amnesty may have explained in part why the Lib Dem surge evaporated on the day.  Mr Clegg seems to have fallen between two stools. This is not what leadership is about. It should be about guiding the ignorant towards the truth. But when votes are at stake none of our senior politicians had the guts to do anything but pander to the public's basest prejudice.