Though 4 of the 5 leaders tried to stick to the topics as they were presented, it wasn't long before Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was blaming immigration for all of the UK's current woes. It was good to see the other leaders rally together, and present an almost united front to oppose UKIP's far right theology, but all too many people get hysterical on the topic of immigration and I think it needs some careful unpicking to get to the roots.
The news coverage of the boatloads of migrants from north Africa crossing the Mediterranean Sea and landing in Italy, and the migrants waiting at Calais in France for a chance to jump under a lorry's axle or inside its load to get onto either a ferry or through the Chunnel surely shows the desperation and the lengths that these people are prepared to go to for a better life. Some British newspapers have given too many column inches to some extreme right-wing views this week. I can't claim to have the same readership, but I can put forward a different view.
UKIP, by Farage's own admission, would drastically reduce the UK's overseas aid budget. They see it as handing over money to people in other countries with no real benefit to the UK. They are misguided.
The purpose of the overseas aid budget is to reduce immigration. If we can help these developing and struggling countries tackle some of their social issues, by giving them aid in a variety of forms, their populations are less likely to want to leave. Our pounds sterling go much further when spent in African countries to help educate children, provide safe drinking water and sanitation, or assist with housing and health programmes, than it does when spent on people who actually make it across our borders and then ask for help.
UKIP want the UK to leave the EU, so that we don't have to accept European migrants. European migration works for all European member countries, not just those in the east. You may not want to go and live in Poland or Slovakia or Bulgaria, but your children might especially if they decide to study higher education in a European country. Many young Brits already go to France, Germany and the BeNeLux to study at university level: if you have to pay a fee here at home, then why not pay a similar amount in a different country and have some extra experience to add to your CV at the end of your studies as well?
And what about when you retire, and the British summers just don't give you the amount of sun that you would like. Moving to Spain, the south of France or Portugal has long been the option of British retirees, who take their state pensions with them. If we leave the Euro Zone, you wont be able to take your state pension with you, and your medical care wont be covered either. Does it still sound like a good idea?
"They come here and take our jobs" How many times have we heard that over the last 100 years? It's not a new complaint, and you can go back further than 100 years and still see it in historical records, if perhaps not using those exact words. It's also not just uttered by Brits; in countries all around the world, an influx of "others" usually creates a backlash with a similar sentiment. It's convenient, but it's normally not true.
Migrants want to work, it's the driving force behind the risks they take to get to their chosen destination. They want to work, earn some money and then send a portion of it back to their families in their home country. Some want to work and save so that when they return home, they will be able to buy a home, perhaps with a bit of land, to support themselves and their families. Typically, Poles tend to stay in the UK for just 2 or 3 years before returning home. They are fiercely patriotic for their own country, and have no intention of staying in the UK indefinitely.
So what are these jobs that the migrants are taking from under the noses of our young men (who generally are the ones complaining the loudest)? I accept that immigrants can be found in all employment sectors, but immigrants usually fill gaps in our employment market that Brits can't or wont fill themselves. Bus drivers, dentists, cleaners, daffodil pickers. Don't blame the immigrant for obtaining the job; ask why the employer didn't give the job to a Brit - could it be the attitude that some work is beneath us, or the level of English is better in a Polish student than in a native speaking English man or woman?
Housing, schools and our health system are undoubtedly struggling at the moment. It is easy to blame that on immigration, as if a single factor could account for all the ills in our society. We know we have been building the wrong kinds of housing in the wrong areas for decades, yet we have done very little about it. Selling off council housing stock and then wilfully preventing those councils from re-investing in building more housing with the proceeds is one of the main reasons why there is so little social housing today. That's not the fault of immigrants, that's the fault of a middle aged white woman.
Schools, particularly primary schools, have fewer places because the planners didn't take into account social mobility across Europe, and because there are not enough teachers. Why would anyone want to be a teacher in a British school today when they will spend most of their time on paperwork and coaching children to jump through hoop after hoop of tests, for very little pay or recognition? Neither of those things are the fault of immigrants.
Our health service would simply grind to a halt if we were to sack all of the immigrants working in it. From GPs and surgeons to cleaners and ancillary staff and every post in between, immigrants working alongside nationals do an amazing job with the resources available to them.
So what can we do? We are an island, with finite space to fill with housing. Austerity has taken a significant chunk out of the social welfare system, and many people are still finding things tough despite being told that we've turned a corner and prospects are improving. The first thing we should do is stop the hysteria. We need to talk about immigration calmly and sensibly, without demonising the immigrants and making them scapegoats for our own political failings and short-sightedness over the past decades.
As someone who loves to travel and would quite like to live and work in another country one day, I would be a hypocrite if I said we should close our borders. More than that, I'd be stupid and unrealistic. Make something hard to get hold of and you immediately increase the demand. Our streets are not paved with gold, and we need to do more overseas to ensure people know that.
- Allow people to come here, but not give them financial support in the form of social housing or benefits. Make it clear that if you have nowhere to stay and no money to live on when you arrive, you'll be sent home straight away. This might not be a popular move, but it seems the most sensible to me, and is one that plenty of other countries work with.
- If an immigrant commits a crime, send them home straight away at the start of their sentence, rather than insisting they serve all their time at our expense and then trying to find them to send them home once they have been released.
- Possibly introduce a new tax rate for immigrants, so they pay slightly more for the first 5 years of their stay. Also introduce a slightly higher business tax rate for those companies who employ a higher percentage of foreign nationals. Only slightly higher for both though.
- Do more overseas to improve the locations from which the greater numbers of migrants are arriving. Some are fleeing poverty and war, and we can do something about both of those. We need to implement education programmes that do not paint the UK as a financial utopia, but give a realistic view of how hard it can be to live here with very little money.
- Work within Europe to create a fairer dispersal of immigrants. It is not fair to expect Italy to accommodate everyone who happens to land on their shores, but equally we can't take everyone who wants to come here.
- Encourage more people to return home, or migrate onwards. We already know many people intend to return home after a few years, so we could make this an easier option for them, assisting with travel costs rather than assisting with living costs while they are here.
- Encourage more Brits to expand their horizons and work, study and live overseas. It's not something often talked about in immigration debates, but it could be a real benefit to the UK to have citizens who are outward thinking and have a better understanding of our place in the world. We have always been a nation of travellers and explorers, and we could use the European migration possibilities to our advantage instead of only ever criticising them.
But just stop with the name-calling and rhetoric that is not dissimilar from the Nazi ravings of last century. We are better than that.