Immigration policy needs to focus on building cohesive communities

Instead of dog-whistling, David Cameron should be helping local government manage the impacts of migration.

Instead of dog-whistling, David Cameron should be helping local government manage the impacts of migration

David Cameron’s Telegraph article yesterday on curbing benefit payments has already been criticised as bad policy. It is a re-announcement of an existing policy commitment to restrict out-of-work benefit payments to three months for EU nationals who have are not permanently settled in the UK.

Very few EU nationals will be affected – perhaps less than 10,000 people – as most come to the UK to work or to study.

Aware that UKIP still poses a threat to the Tories, the Cameron article appears to be pure dog-whistling. In the long-term such an approach gets us nowhere. It does nothing to address public concerns about immigration, nor build public trust in the ability of politicians to manage immigration.

In the run up to a general election, mainstream parties need to give greater consideration to building cohesive communities that

All analysis suggests that over the next 50 years immigration into the UK and to western Europe is unlikely to decrease substantially. There will be ups and downs, but it is likely that immigration will be maintained at about its current levels. The drivers of migration such as income inequalities, unemployment and, conversely, skill shortages will remain in place.

Moreover, both the OECD and the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility have concluded that there will be skills shortages and pressures on public finances if net migration into the UK falls significantly.

The Office for Budget Responsibility latest fiscal sustainability report suggest that a ‘low immigration’ futures scenario where net migration is around 105,000 per year will result in “more old people, fewer working age people and the same number of young people, which means that the working age population is smaller relative to the non-working age population. This means that the projected population structure is now somewhat less favourable to the public finances.”

In summary, migration is unlikely to decrease substantially. The policy challenge, therefore, is to help communities manage this aspect of population change.

Regrettably there are few policy proposals from any mainstream political party that address community cohesion. Previous Labour governments did give consideration to this issue. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 obliged public bodies to promote good community relations, as well as ensuring equality of opportunity. In 2006 the Labour government set up the Independent Commission on Integration and Social Cohesion, whose report, Our Shared Future, came up with a number of proposals that aimed to help communities manage migration

The government’s own Community Life Survey shows that in some parts of Britain, relations between new migrants and longer settled residents are reasonably good. Policy makers need to learn from these successful examples of integration.

Research shows that two factors are important in helping neighbourhoods manage tensions associated with migration. First, there needs to be enough spaces and places where migrants and longer-settled residents can meet and interact: meaningful social contact does much to dispel concerns about migration and to humanise a group that is portrayed in the media as a faceless, marginalised and demarcated ‘other’.

Even very fleeting contact – a smile or a brief conversation – can promote good relations if it contributes to a culture of hospitality and living together. Spaces where people meet and mix include neighbourhood streets, workplaces, educational institutions, parks, markets, community centres, pubs and cafes, civil society organisations and informal associative circles.

But many factors can act to limit this meaningful social contact, particularly residential mobility and social segregation caused by housing, employment and education policy. We are unlikely to feel comfortable about migration if we do not meet migrants at work, in our neighbourhoods or at school and college. Public policy needs to address factors such as population churn in areas with large proportions of private rental accommodation, as well as ensuring that institutions such as schools and children’s centres are representative of their local communities.

The qualities of local political leadership is another attribute that helps build good community relations. Local leadership is important in relation to the messages that it sends out about migration, as well as policy and planning to deal with sources of tension. Problems such as school place shortages or poor quality rental accommodation can easily be blamed on migrants, and failing to address these issues can worsen community relations.

Instead of dog-whistling, David Cameron should be helping local government manage the impacts of migration.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Her book on integration and social cohesion will be published by Policy Press in 2015

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