THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
THANK GOD FOR IMMIGRANTS
Astriking contrast exists between the mean-spirited political and media row over immigration which caught fire again this week, and the celebration tomorrow throughout the Catholic Church of the World Day for Migrants and Refugees. The generosity of the latter is summed up by the statement to mark the Day by Bishop Patrick Lynch of Southwark, who leads on immigration issues in the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He hailed “the strong sense of community and commitment to family life within many of our migrant communities”. Though Bishop Lynch was referring primarily to Catholic immigrants, who contributed to parish life “by their faith and their faithfulness, by their commitment and their witness and by their devotion”, this points to a wider truth. Communities originally from Africa and Asia, whether Catholic, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or whatever, do put great weight on the importance of family life. The beneficial effect on social cohesion is noticeable.
These intangibles tend to be overlooked in the immigration debate, which insists on a cost-benefit analysis ignoring cultural influences, and takes into account only the assumed interests of the host community. If a member of that community has been “displaced” from a job by the arrival of immigrants, that is regarded as a loss. From the point of view of an immigrant it is a gain, but that is assumed not to count in its favour.
There is an insidious “us and them” about the language with which immigration is usually discussed, which does not reflect the reality of multicultural Britain. The very word “immigration” conjures up a white Christian indigenous society invaded by alien non-whites. Whatever half-truth there might have been in that was swept away by the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe after they joined the European Union.
And does the “native” or host community, which the discussion always assumed had been disadvantaged by immigration, include, for instance, Indian doctors or Filipino nurses in the National Health Service, who may even be second generation? Are they displacers or displaced? What of the fact that British employers frequently state that they prefer immigrant workers, especially from Eastern Europe, because of the better work ethic they exhibit? Where does that “plus”, in terms of increased productivity, show up in the statistics? Two recent reports, both apparently authoritative, have muddied the waters by their different treatment of the statistics to reach conflicting conclusions. The Government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said there were 23 fewer British jobs for every 100 migrants entering Britain from outside the European Union. But a report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research concluded that immigration had had little impact. The anti-immigration lobby group Migration Watch hailed the first of these as proving its case; but all they really show is that the clever use of statistics can prove anything.
The Filipino community is a case in point. It comes from outside the European Union, and hence is one of the communities said by the MAC to have caused unemployment. Yet few communities can equal it in the benefits it has brought to Britain, in the NHS and elsewhere. Its presence will rightly be celebrated at a service in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, tomorrow. It deserves to be thanked, not blamed.
CUTS MUST NOT HARM CHILDREN
Britain’s welfare agencies have been both unanimous and vociferous in their opposition to the Government’s Welfare Reform Bill now before Parliament. The Government’s own commissioner for children’s rights, Dr Maggie Atkinson, has listed numerous threats to children’s well-being in the draft legislation, many of which have been echoed by other responsible voices.
Last autumn, 18 Church of England bishops signed an open letter, supported by both archbishops, criticising in particular the proposal to limit housing benefit to £500 per family per week. This week the Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, joined in the attack on behalf of Catholic welfare agencies, saying: “The proposed cap on household benefits in the Welfare Reform Bill will especially hurt larger families because it takes no account of family size, potentially forcing them to cut back on essentials such as heating and food, and in many cases resulting in the loss of their home.”
Nobody disputes that some aspects of the welfare state needed reviewing, nor that dependency on state benefits is anything other than a second-best solution to poverty because of its damaging moral and psychological consequences. The housing benefit cap was proposed on the basis of “fairness” – that families living on benefits should not be able to afford better accommodation than a family in work. This ignores the fact that rents are set by landlords, and reflect the balance of supply and demand for housing in a particular locality. The Government could just as well deal with the problem of soaring inner-city rents by introducing some form of rent control. Instead, it has chosen to stigmatise the recipients of housing benefit, as taking advantage of the system. That is what is not fair.
Like Archbishop Smith, Dr Atkinson argues that this cap on housing benefit would result in poorer health and educational outcomes for children. Parents will be forced to divert money away from necessities for children such as heating, warm clothing and nutritious food, in order to cover their housing costs; and beyond that, there is a very real threat of homelessness. In addition, she is worried about the increase in child poverty because of reductions in benefits payable to families where parents are disabled, or even in direct support to disabled children. Meanwhile, the abolition of the Social Fund would deprive families coping with emergencies of the help they need.
The Government is clearly pursuing two conflicting aims. Its well-intentioned reforms designed to incentivise work by the introduction of a universal welfare credit – which will only save money, if at all, in the long run – have become mixed up with ill-considered cost-cutting measures as part of the general reduction in public spending. The housing benefit cap in particular was a headline-grabbing measure designed to capitalise on the resentment the public is alleged to feel – for which there is not much evidence – over those living in expensive areas and claiming large amounts of benefit. But impoverishing children, and having their families evicted from their homes, is never going to win the Tories any votes. They may be in the habit of ignoring advice from bishops, but this time they should listen.
2 | THE TABLET | 14 January 2012