The light is at last beginning to dawn on the immigration debate. Today’s Migration Advisory Committee report on the impact of low-skilled migration to this country sheds a small amount of light on what has been blindingly obvious for a long time to people at the bottom.
In total there were almost three quarters of a million Eastern Europeans working here last year. The number of citizens from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia living in this country grew from an estimated 167,000 in 2004 to just over one million in 2012.
Working- and lower middle-class voters have serious and justified concerns about the impact of this mass immigration on their lives and on our society. They are the ones bearing the costs of fierce competition for school places, pressure on maternity units, creaking transport services and longer waiting lists for housing. In London alone, where more than one million immigrants have arrived since 1997, there are over 350,000 households on local authority waiting lists.
The Government would be wise to recognise these disproportionate local impacts of immigration on poorer communities. It should begin by, for example, making the allocation of social housing more transparent by requiring local authorities to collect and publish information on who is getting housing in their area and under what criteria.
We need radical proposals also to address the negative impact of mass immigration on the wages of the low paid. The MAC report describes employers’ attraction to a more ‘obedient source of low-wage labour’, and it sets out the downward pressure – and the lack of resistance to this – on wages at the bottom resulting from low-skilled immigration.
Each of the main political parties has outlined proposals to improve compliance and enforcement of the minimum wage. But none has been forthcoming with bolder action. We need political parties to commit themselves to a comprehensive low pay strategy which gives powers to the Low Pay Commission to immediately set higher minimum wages in sectors that can afford to pay without shedding jobs, and which obliges government departments and agencies to pay all directly employed, contracted and agency staff a Living Wage.
But while employers think they are able to get away with paying poverty wages, and they have such a vast pool of cheap labour to choose from, they will continue to do so.
I recently asked the Prime Minister to draw up a set of red and blue lines so that voters will know from where he is batting when it comes to the crucial negotiations with the European Union; a commitment to fully addressing the impact of mass immigration on the living standards of people at the bottom must be one of them.
Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead