Mary Dejevsky: Distracted by the Polish question

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A strange little debate opened up and then closed, as strange little debates have a habit of doing. It was about whether Polish migrants were going home, and if so, what proportion. A report, commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that around half of the 1.5 million East Europeans who had come to Britain since 2004 had left, while a Warsaw professor, Krystyna Iglicka, objected that there was no trace of them either back in Poland or elsewhere. Her estimate was that around 1 million Poles were still in the UK.

So what was all that about? One thing it might have been about, at least partly, was the finding of the same EHRC report, that the great East European migration might have "reduced wages slightly at the bottom end of the labour market". If you stress how many have gone home, you are saying, in effect, that anyone concerned about numbers can stop worrying. If you choose instead to highlight the wages point – and both arguments could be heard in the wake of the report's publication – this is tantamount to saying you think there are too many newcomers in Britain. An agenda lies behind both points. Only Prof Iglicka would seem not to have a dog in this particular fight.

But citing Polish, or East European, arrivals as proof that the whole UK system of immigration is out of joint has always been less than honest, and not only because of their status as EU members. Which is not to say that the accusers do not sincerely believe what they are saying. They hear Polish in the streets and at their GP surgeries; they see Polish food at their local Tesco, and they know – if only apocryphally – of people whose pay has been undercut by Polish plumbers/builders/cleaners. They tend not to look any further.

The great East European migration has been an extraordinary social phenomenon and a spectacular example of official forecasts gone wrong. And, on balance, whether the Poles are still here or not, they have shown Britain at its commonsensical and tolerant best. Which is why, perhaps, the argument about Poles, as shorthand for all "new" Europeans, rumbles on without the embarrassment generally reserved for discussions of immigration.

I also suspect that the Government and some employers find this convenient. For if people believe Poles are the problem, that means they are not looking elsewhere, where there might be more grounds for real economic and social concern. The fact is that, even when new European arrivals were at their height, they were still outnumbered by arrivals from the Indian Subcontinent. And a big clue about where the Home Office believes the greatest potential problems lie can be found in the table of visa fees recently issued for the coming financial year.

Almost every category of visa charge has been increased only marginally, but the charges for "leave to remain" for dependants already here are being doubled (from £820 to £1,680), while those for bringing in dependent relatives – spouses, parents, grandparents etc – are being trebled (from £585 to £1,680). These are swingeing increases by any standards and reflect, so says a spokesman for the UK Border Agency, "the extremely good package of benefits (i.e. indefinite leave to enter, exemption from English language requirements etc)" which this group of people receives. The same "package", I was told, includes all other benefits accorded to permanent residents.

As official figures show, the number of dependants arriving in the UK has been rising sharply. Unlikely to work, relieved of the obligation to speak English, they epitomise the reservations even many liberals quietly harbour about immigration. Far better to blame the Poles than stir that viper's nest.

When a racket becomes a relic

Congratulations to Andy Murray on reaching the men's singles final at the Australian Open. But it's not the sportsman I'm interested in here so much as his tennis racket.

Clearing out cupboards recently, I came across my old racket. For a moment, I thought about which nephew or niece might be coming up to tennis age. Then reality struck. My venerable racket hardly warrants the name. It would be kind to call it an antique. Tennis rackets have come a very long way since I last graced a court – as has sports gear generally. Think coloured cricket stumps, ultra-light bicycles, even footballs, not to mention football boots.

Even further back in the cupboard, I found my old clarinet. Now there's something that has endured. Strange, isn't it? Musical instruments of the classical variety are almost unchanged. Unfortunately, the family's only budding musician chose the saxophone.

'Sarah's Law' is used to drown out problems

It probably hasn't escaped your attention that the Government wants to expand the application of "Sarah's Law". The news was all over the media earlier this week, starting with the BBC. But is this what the Government is going to do, or does it just want you to think so? And what rights does "Sarah's Law" give you anyway?

The strong impression created by this flurry of reports was that "Sarah's Law", after pilots in four areas, was a huge success and was about to go national. What is more, the naming of the law after Sarah Payne, an eight-year old who was abducted and killed by a convicted sex offender, suggests that it allows people to track paedophiles.

This is what its US precursor, "Megan's Law", allows – and it has led to a sharp fall in the number of convicted paedophiles who keep the authorities informed of their whereabouts. What a surprise.

It was to avoid this and, of course, vigilantism, that "Sarah's Law" was framed in much narrower terms. It has nothing to do with allowing people to check, randomly, on sex offenders. Instead, it enables parents to ask the police whether someone with "regular, unsupervised access" to their child has been convicted or suspected of a sex offence. Among its targets are men who court single mothers with a view to gaining access to their children – a bigger problem, though you might not think so, than random paedophile attacks.

My own suspicion is that talk of "Sarah's Law" is something ministers have learned to switch on to drown other difficult subjects, such as – last weekend – the disturbing details of the "torture boys" case and David Cameron's charge that government policies were partly responsible. Paedophiles, after all, are an even more emotive threat than feral children. Personally, I don't expect any extension of "Sarah's Law" quite yet – it would come in handy a bit closer to the election.

Comments