Fraser Nelson

Making work pay | 16 July 2010

Making work pay | 16 July 2010
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What is the purpose of the welfare state? To protect British people from unemployment, or to protect them from jobs like fruit-picking and working in Pret A Manger? I listened to Farming Today* earlier, in which they interviewed the Eastern Europeans that we import en masse to do jobs that Brits used to do.

Having done the job myself in my younger days (I come from a part of the world where the October break is called the 'tattie holidays' so kids can dig potatoes), I can attest that it's bloody hard work for a paltry reward. But it pays no less than the minimum wage. Without immigration, we'd be forced to find a proper solution to this problem: that welfare has priced a lot of British people out of this particular market.

But my main complain about immigration (which, to the chagrin of some CoffeeHousers, I'm in favour of) is that it has allowed us to cover up, rather than deal with, such problems. We have not noticed that at least 1 million working-age people have been on benefits since John Major was in power. We'd notice that if there were labour shortages. Immigration makes it easy not only to ignore the British poor, but to ignore huge dysfunctions in the British labour market.

Why, as Ken Livingstone once asked, has he never been served coffee by a Londoner if there are 782,000 working-age Londoners on benefits? The answer lies in the perverted incentives of our welfare state, and our deplorable system of taxing the low-paid to further deter them. Why break your back picking berries, if a fifth of what you earn from it has to pass to the government.

If extra work doesn't mean extra money, or you keep 20p in every extra £1 you earn, why work? That's why Iain Duncan Smith's plans for a 40p in the £1 guarantee are so urgently needed. Making work pay for British low-paid people is the key to dealing with dole and immigration.

With the number of Eastern European immigrants once again on the rise, we'd best sort this problem out before we have another ten years where economic growth serves to suck people in from overseas, rather than shortening dole queues.

* It's amazing what early-morning media delights the parents of young kids are introduced to.

UPDATE: wrinkled weasel makes the point that immigrant labour has long been used for seasonal agricultural work – much of it Irish. I have no graphs to make this point, but it’s recorded in the Glasgow folk song (‘Wha saw the tattie howkers’) which denotes the peculiar ways of the Irish immigrants (‘some o’ them had boots and stockings, some o’ them had nane at a’). At the time, this did lead to tension – and, because the Irish were Catholics, sewed the roots of today’s sectarianism. It stems not in disputes about the Real Presence but simple competition for low-paid jobs, Jets v Sharks. One final piece of tattie howkin’ trivia: it seemed to Scots workers that the Irish would use their left foot to put the shovel into the ground. This is the derivation for ‘left-footer’ which is about the only abusive term for Catholics that The Times hasn’t used.