Leading article: Why our new arrivals are to be welcomed, not feared

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The Independent Online

As miscalculations go, the Government's underestimate of how many new European Union citizens would come to work in Britain two years ago must be up among the great forecasting errors of all time. With around 600,000 new arrivals in the past two years, this movement of population from east and central Europe to the United Kingdom is now among the largest ever in peacetime. Far from being a cause of trepidation or fear - as some have tried to make it - this should be a reason for wholehearted celebration.

There is reason to celebrate, first, because the arrival of so many Poles, Czechs and others - just the latest chapter in our long history of immigration - is evidence of the positive light in which Britain is seen beyond our shores. It is a tribute to our vibrant economy and the perceived openness of our society that so many have seen, and continue to see, Britain as a land of opportunity.

There is reason to celebrate, second, because down the years the hopes of the vast majority of these new arrivals have been vindicated. They have found work that was either not available for them at home, or only at much lower rates of pay. In so doing, they have improved their own fortunes and the fortunes of the families they have left at home. That Britain's towns and cities, and the economy as a whole, has been able to absorb so many new workers with so little upset is something of which everyone should be proud.

And, of course, the benefit flows both ways. The new Europeans, like the Huguenots, the Jews and the Ugandan Asians, have done well in and for their adopted country. Now, without these new Europeans, whole swathes of the economy would be in difficulty. In London and the South-east, the services sector - especially hotels and catering - would be experiencing severe shortages of staff. Ditto the agricultural sector in East Anglia and elsewhere. Like earlier generations of newcomers before them, they are making the wheels of our economy turn more smoothly and adding value to our GDP.

The employers of today, like their predecessors, find their new workforce enterprising, well qualified and reliable. And - to rebuff one oft-cited fear - they contribute far more to the Exchequer than they take out. While paying National Insurance and income tax, they use the National Health Service relatively little. They do not qualify for council housing, and the one pay-out they can apply for is child benefit.

It would be wrong not to note that one reason why the Government looks so positively on this latest wave of immigration is because it is probably helping to keep down inflation. In parts of the country, wages for some categories of workers - builders, house-cleaners and others - have fallen. This is hard on those already doing these jobs, but the relatively high wages often masked shortage. Lower prices for needed services, and lower inflation overall, help far more people than they harm.

Our one concern should be how many of the new arrivals will choose to go home when they want to settle down, rather than putting down more permanent roots. We have a new source of labour at a time when our thriving economy can use it. But do we have a more permanent addition to our population to help fund our pension and health systems in the longer term?

The onus now is really on us: to make Britain a place where the new Europeans feel welcome enough to stay. The exhilarating mix of cultures and experiences that has made London such a successful world city should be a source of pride. The enterprise of this latest generation of hard-working new arrivals can help spread this spirit across the country.