Bruce Anderson: We need better education, not more immigration

The single market could create immigration on a scale that threatens social harmony
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The Independent Online

At last we can discuss immigration without silly charges of racism. When the Tory spokesman Damian Green expressed his anxieties about an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians, other politicians agreed. No wonder. Over the past couple of years, parts of Britain have ben swamped by Eastern Europeans. This has brought many benefits. I am told that the first language on southern English building sites is no longer Irish brogue, but some branch of Slavonic. By preventing undersupply in the building labour market leading to sharp wage rises, the Polish plumber has helped to control inflation.

While he is helping the Bank of England, his pretty cousins are dispensing cheerful service in London's pubs and restaurants. Easy on the eye, hard-working, spontaneously helpful, the Eastern Europeans girls are much more employable than the average Sharon and Tracy.

That is the problem. Sharon and Trace need a job, as do Wayne and Darren. Otherwise, they will not only vegetate in idleness. They will require a large subsidy to help them to do so. It is also unlikely that they would provide satisfactory role models for their all-too-many children, so Sharon and Tracy could cascade down the generations, leading a cycle of crime, high social-security costs, hopelessness ­ and unhappiness.

Merely removing the Poles will not solve the problem. Two decades ago, long before Eastern Europeans took over the London waitering trade, I remember a dinner with Alan Clark at which he said: "I'll believe in unemployment when I'm served by an English waiter."

Alan was wrong because he was misdiagnosing the problem, which is not unemployment but anemployment: a similar distinction to the one between immoral and amoral. The collapse of the family, the decline of the old-fashioned working class and high levels of welfare payments have created a society in which millions of people are culturally averse to working. They are no longer just unemployed; they are anemployable.

According to figures produced by two bright young journalists, Allister Heath and Fraser Nelson, there are over five million people in this country who claim benefit for not working: 16 per cent of the labour force. The million registered unemployed are joined by 2.77 million on incapacity benefit plus over a million lone parents and other sub-species of carers, many of them persons by whom no sane person would wish to be cared.

The Blair government has an interest in manipulating the unemployment figures, so as to be able to claim that its policies are working. Yet even government sources agree that two-thirds of those on incapacity benefit are capable of working. The employment minister, John Hutton, has committed himself to reducing the 2.77 million figure to one million by 2014. Thought he may not accept all the Heath/Nelson figures, he is conceding that the real level of unemployment in this country is around three million: the 1980s figure, which was regarded as crisis.

If we are to recover our social health, a large proportion of the five million must be persuaded, induced or coerced back to work. But there is an obvious difficulty. Gentle reader, you are an employer of labour. You have a vacancy. There are two candidates. The first is a surly youth. He has " work-shy" stamped all over him. It is obvious that he is only there because the dole office is threatening his benefits or because his doctor is refusing to renew his sick note. Even if he does not have a criminal record, you wonder what this says about the efficiency of the local cops. You know there is only one way to enliven his sullen features: "I'm very sorry, but the job's been filled.''

It is easy for you to do that, because the other candidate is an eager young Pole, whose first question was about overtime and weekend working and whose body language overflows with enthusiasm. The Pole gets the job. But what are we to do with our native unemployables?

Romania and Bulgaria will provide a palliative measure. No date has yet been set for their accession to the EU, but we can be certain that their peoples will not be allowed unrestricted access to our labour markets. Romanians and Bulgars undercutting the Poles: how does the British underclass scramble on to the work chain?

That raises these questions which go far beyond Romania and Bulgaria. The first concerns the EU single market. Once it is fully operative, every citizen of an EU country will be able to work in any other EU country. The assumption had been that the disruptive effects would be minimised, because most people prefer to stay at home. But Britain's recent experience gives no ground for complacency. The single market could create immigration on a scale that threatens social harmony and undermines national traditions.

The second is globalisation. We could keep foreign workers out; we cannot keep British jobs in. If our workforce is unproductive, employers will migrate. That leads to the third: education. Our people expect a first-world standard of living. There are two ways in which this can be achieved: a hugely expensive social security bill, or an education which equips them to offer value-added to an employer.

When democracy became prevalent in the late 19th century and fears were expressed about the damage which uneducated voters could inflict, the liberal politician Sir William Harcourt said that we must: "Educate our masters." More than a century later, confronted by the challenges of the global economy, it is equally clear that we must educate our workforce.