Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Current British immigration policy

A "Times" journalist interviews Trevor Phillips

Last weekend I went for a walk on Hampstead Heath. As we meandered beneath the trees we saw lots of other families just like us; but none of them was speaking English. A few days later I took the bus to Soho – again not one of the many conversations going on around me was in my language. I love the diversity, energy and prosperity that people from all over the world bring to London. But sometimes I get that strange sense of not feeling at home in my own town. And I’m not the only one: last week one of Gordon Brown’s “ask the people” roadshows found the public rate immigration as a more urgent priority than education or terrorism.

And while a plethora of races and cultures is the norm now in Britain’s multi-ethnic cities, the recent influx (in the 1990s 1.2m more people came to live here once those who’ve emigrated are accounted for – and that’s just the official statistics) means that rural areas and smaller towns are having to integrate large foreign populations too. Julie Spence, the chief constable of Cambridgeshire, spoke last week about the cost and cultural clashes of having large numbers of eastern Europeans on her patch.

It is not just the police who are being squeezed, but doctors’ surgeries and schools all over Britain. To get a sense of the scale of the nonplanning, the Home Office estimated that no more than 13,000 eastern Europeans from the accession states would come to Britain annually: 720,000 have registered. And nobody is counting the Iraqis, Kurds and Afghans sneaking in every night through our ports. Or the Chinese smuggled in by people traffickers, the Somali refugees . . . No wonder the public is worried.

So to get a sense of where all of this is going, I went to meet the man who is paid to engender social cohesion, Trevor Phillips, formerly the head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and now in charge of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights which takes over the responsibilities of the CRE, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission next week. A veteran of race politics, it was Phillips who declared that multiculturalism wasn’t working, sounding the death knell for that oh so British doctrine that for 30 years decreed we should live alongside each other, let different communities and races do their own thing and not worry about integration, helping immigrants learn English or inculcating British values. It was a doctrine that died on 7/7 when British-born Muslim suicide bombers murdered their fellow citizens.

Though undoubtedly the right thing to do, Phillips’s condemnation of multiculturalism made him massively unpopular with many of his former brothers – as I found out when I interviewed him about his new job on stage at the CRE’s farewell race convention last year. I was there to talk to him about the role of the new commission. Questions from the floor were hostile. Voices were raised. Many veterans of the race riots of the 1970s saw Phillips as a sell-out, furious that the focus on race was to be lost as the CRE merged into a wider body. Phillips was taken aback by the “bullying” attitudes.

This time we are in his offices in Victoria Street without an audience, but he is still uncompromising on his old comrades. “They have to grow up. That militancy must be consigned to the dustbin of history. The CRE was set up to deal with a different set of circumstances. Now we have to chart a course for how we can deal with difference. We have to be more proactive and more friendly.” Race is, as he puts it, “no longer black and white”. In terms of life chances, a black African girl is likely to do better than a white British boy. A Chinese baby born today will probably be much better paid than his or her white contemporaries. It is no longer the case that ethnic minority kids get a raw deal because of white racism.

But despite such progress, Phillips is aware of the challenges we face to integrate the new arrivals. “We are now in the age of difference, not just in our big cities, but everywhere. We are all struggling to get used to this. But people like Andrew Green at Migrationwatch are saying these new arrivals can’t fit in. I believe that shows contempt for the tolerance of the British people. As a nation, because of being Welsh, Scots, Irish, English and still British we are pretty good at absorbing people. Once we get our brains in gear and stop being frightened about race, we are pretty good in this country at doing the immigration job. We just have to treat it positively. We have to tell immigrants the rules and what we expect.” Tell that to Cambridgeshire police.

He puts much of the anxiety about this down to “bad government planning which has made this all much more difficult. It’s not controlled and not managed. There are definitely issues of competence over the numbers coming here. And many of the problems we are seeing are happening because of that bad management”.

Now, he believes, the government is getting to grips with it. He cites Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, with whom he says he has worked closely on this, (not one for hiding his light under a bushel, Phillips) for going in the right direction. Byrne, he says, has started counting both the number of people coming to Britain and the number leaving. And it was Byrne who this year finally admitted the public was right to be worried about immigration. Labour is realising they have to talk about this which is why Gordon Brown has been banging on about Britishness: expect to hear lots about “identity politics” at the Labour conference this week. Slowly politicians are beginning to grasp the nettle. Why has it taken so long?

“Governments since the 1960s have been terrified of talking about race because of the spectre of Enoch Powell,” says Phillips. “They are scared of raising these issues for fear of being branded racist. But we must be able to have an honest conversation about racial difference and immigration. We must recognise diversity, not pretend it doesn’t exist. It is okay to say ‘I don’t like what you do’, but not okay to say ‘I don’t like what you are’. Many of us don’t know how to talk to each other. My job is to work out how to make it work.”

So what are his proposals? He thinks that in divided communities such as Oldham or Burnley that rather than quotas to mix the races in schools, or bussing pupils from one part of town to another, the key is getting different kinds of kids together for music or sport – or sending them on summer camps (all things his new body will be advocating and funding).

As for the political challenge, Phillips is upbeat. “Gordon is pretty smart on this, he’s seen that there are two great challenges at the moment. 1) How do we live with the planet? 2) How do we live with each other? The one most likely to destroy civilisation in my view is that we can’t live with each other. “Gordon has spotted that what we really fear is the consequence of this rushing tide of turbulence of diversity, which is why he is concentrating on the identity, Britishness, which will form a glue that will keep us together while everything is conspiring to force us apart.”

I’m not so sure that “Britishness” is the superglue he and Brown believe. What is it? Its purest expression is the Rule Britannia fest of the Last Night of the Proms – and there were precious few brown faces there, however hard the BBC tried to find them. But luckily, as well as Britishness, Phillips has some radical prescriptions for our unease. First he says that every immigrant must learn English, that the days of council-funded interpreters and translations on tap are over. “English is a sine qua non. And when we’ve surveyed this, the people who are most keen that immigrants learn English are former immigrants. They know that if you don’t have English you are shut out.”

He tells me about going to Bradford and Oldham and the middle-aged Bangladeshi ladies he’s met learning English alongside their children on a special bus. Looking stern, he says there is no place in society for wives forbidden by their husbands from taking part – these men must “get over it”: it’s official, the “live and let live” attitude to subjugating women, or honour killings or extremism is over. Multiculturalism RIP.

Even more controversially, Phillips is advocating a two-track immigration system. The United Nations says 200m people do not live and work in the country they were born in. “This is not a fearsome tide of refugees, but people coming to find work. We need them.” But, he says, we need to distinguish between those who want to work for a while and go home and those “wanting to be citizens”. Most crucial, he thinks, is “to have a system where, frankly, people can leave easily. One of the reasons people come and they stay is that they are worried that if they leave they won’t get back in . . . I think we should make that entry and exit easier – give people a permit to be a waiter or whatever, rather than coming in on a lorry.” That requires a more flexible and coherent system. “It’s different from 50 years ago when my parents came from Guyana – then it was difficult to go back home. Whereas now people virtually commute from Warsaw. If we are too scared about immigration we force people to be here all the time.”

That would be one track, a kind of semi-citizenship for transitory workers where temporary migrants pay for public services such as health, education and welfare before being entitled to work here. “Then there needs to be another track for people who want to come and be British. There are lots of people who like what we are and want to be part of it. I like proposals that such people should do voluntary work, that they have to display their desire for citizenship. It is all part of the desire for integration.” He is passionate about “equality” – a key part of the new body. White people are part of this too. “It’s not right that whites should be queue-jumped on things like housing.”

Does he think America has lessons for us? “Absolutely not. It’s a myth that they are a nation of immigrants that all muck in together. The US is a racially segregated society. I don’t want that for this country. When I go to America to see my relations I can be there for four or five weeks and never speak to a white person. I hate that.”


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