Denis MacShane: Blair was wrong on immigration as PM but he is right now


Predictably anything that Tony Blair says is met with knee-jerk rent-a-quote Tory, Labour and trade union denunciations.

But supposing on immigration he is right? Theresa May abolished the European Workers Registration scheme in 2013 following her decision to abolish identity cards in 2010. Both measures helped government to know who and how many were legally in the country.

When researching a new book on Brexit the complaint I heard in European capitals was “We kept and keep asking London for a list of all Europeans working in Britain but it has never been provided.”

About 1.7 per cent of the British population is Polish. In Ireland, four per cent of the population is Polish but no Irish politician, or Irish newspaper, or morning RTE programme goes on and on about immigrants with the venom of much of the London media.

In Spain, with its population of 38 million, there are 1.1 million Romanians, as well as many other immigrants from elsewhere in Europe. In Germany there are 1.5 million Poles and in France 700,000 Portuguese.

Yet only in Britain have feelings against fellow Europeans risen to such a fever pitch that most academic studies say the main reason for the Brexit referendum result was anti-immigrant passions.

It is perfectly fair to say that the equation of VxV (volume times velocity) of arrivals was badly out of control in the last ten years. But it should not be forgotten that there were already several hundred thousand East Europeans working here in the black labour market before 2004. The legendary Polish nanny, building worker, odd-job man came as tourists in the 1990s and slipped into the labour market as Anya Lipska narrates in her excellent crime thrillers about the Polish community in London.

The Labour government of that time bears much responsibility. The cliché is that the UK should have imposed a seven year transition period on Poles and other new EU member states in 2004 such as was imposed on Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. This would not have stopped the mass arrival of “visitors” who would have worked illegally. Instead, by legalising arrivals, Britain had a massive net gain in tax and NI paid as well as keeping alive many small firms that otherwise would have been tempted to move offshore.

From 2010 the Con-Lib Dem coalition had five years to put in place controls that would have reassured British workers they were not facing unfair competition. EU freedom of movement rules to not apply to state employment. The biggest employers of EU citizens is the NHS. They are welcome or should be but why doesn’t Britain train its own doctors and nurses instead of importing them fron Europe?

It is perfectly permissible under EU law to deport any EU citizen who has not found work after three months but, unlike other EU countries, Britain never enforced this rule.

When he succeeded Tony Blair in Number 10, Gordon Brown mumbled something about “British jobs for British workers” but took no action to turn the slogan into a reality. As a minister and then an MP responsible for Labour’s political networking with sister parties in the EU I was dismayed at the continuous instructions from Downing Street to prevent effective enforcement of social Europe rules.

The EU agency workers directive, if properly enforced, with rotten employers fined for using gang-master type employment agencies, would have been welcomed by all workers. When properly enforced the posted workers directive – of which Jeremy Corbyn has frequently spoken – prevents East European firms from using employees such as lorry drivers to undercut British workers paid the rate for the job.

President Macron is now insisting this directive be toughened up. David Cameron and May could have done likewise.

The idea of every employer now having to apply to a jobsworth bureaucrat at the Home Office for permission to hire a European citizen as well as other petty restrictions is simply a UKIP fantasy. Given the xenophobic party scored only 1.8 per cent in the June election it is a puzzle that Labour MPs are alleged to walk in dread of mass transfers of their voters to UKIP.

Labour, or indeed May, could easily produce a programme for toughly managed internal labour market control system much as the Swiss have done despite their February 2014 referendum mandating an end to EU immigration.

That is much better and indeed a pro-worker response rather than inventing a giant new bureaucracy to create external immigration controls that won’t work and which will invite reciprocal measures against Brits who want to live, love, work, and retire in our common European home.

Denis MacShane is a former Europe minister and the author of Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris)

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