Do not ignore these elections

By Edie Friedman, May 16, 2014
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In a week's time, the local and European elections will be held. I can hear a big yawn from many of you. Neither of these elections brings us out in large numbers - usually less than 40 per cent. Although they should raise a number of issues, one in particular stands out - immigration. This has brought to the surface disturbing levels of anti-migrant rhetoric.

We were all bombarded with scare stories about the hordes of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants poised to invade our country when restrictions were lifted this past January. It never happened, as confirmed by travel operators surveyed by the think tank, Migration Matters Trust (chaired by former Home Office minister and ex-JFS head girl Barbara Roche). It may come as a surprise that the biggest group of migrants to Britain are actually international students, constituting almost 40 per cent of net migration and contributing about £18 million to the British economy each year.

But what about the alleged abuse of our welfare state? According to the Department of Work and Pensions only four out of every 100 migrants claim job seekers' allowance. Also according to research published last year by University College London, EU migrants contribute on average £2,610 more in taxes than the cost of public services that they use.

Migrants are also accused of abusing our health service. Here again, scaremongering has taken the place of facts. Immigrants account for 4.5 per cent of the population in England and are responsible for less than two per cent of NHS expenditure.

JCore's campaign says Every Vote Counts

Myths about "health tourism" are key drivers in the framing of the Immigration Bill currently before the Lords, which introduces measures allowing all migrants without indefinite leave to remain to be charged for primary and emergency healthcare. However, critics of the Bill argue that NHS staff will be required to act as immigration officials in determining eligibility for treatment adding a substantial administrative burden. Indeed, the Department of Health's own figures suggest that the cost of implementing the Bill may outweigh any potential savings.

But beyond acknowledging that migrants do not abuse our welfare and health services, we need to recognise that migration is actually essential for Britain's wellbeing. Consider, for example, what would happen to our NHS without migrants, given the large number of doctors, nurses and other health workers from overseas. It would simply collapse. Migration also benefits the economy.

Robert Chote from the Office for Budget Responsibility says that immigration is needed to control public debt and that without it we would be sleepwalking into a debt disaster. Immigration is needed to boost growth and increase tax receipts, both necessary to help the country pay its debts. This view is echoed by Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central, who reminds us that without migration we would have to make further cuts to public services or pay higher taxes - not very attractive prospects.

So does having the facts make any difference to public beliefs about immigrants? It certainly doesn't feel that way as certain sections of the press and some politicians continue to ratchet up fears and mistrust. As our own Jewish experience should remind us, times of economic uncertainty create rich pickings for those who wish to demonise immigrants.

I am not for one moment suggesting that these issues should not be debated. I am suggesting, however, that the debate should engage with facts rather than myths and emotions.

There is one simple thing we can do: vote in the forthcoming European and local elections. That is why JCore has organised a campaign called Every Vote Counts on May 22. As the far right gains alarming support across Europe, it is crucial that we use these elections to say no to those who are encouraging racism and division. That is why it is essential that each one of us votes and encourages friends, family and colleagues to do so as well.

Dr Edie Friedman is founder and executive director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality

    Last updated: 4:47pm, May 16 2014