Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 18th March 2015.
I thank Jean Urquhart and John Finnie for bringing this important debate to the chamber and for the launch yesterday of the not my xenophobia campaign, which I am happy to support. It is important that we address immigration and diversity issues with more positive language, and it is a real worry that we should find ourselves today having to defend the very idea of taking a liberal approach to immigration and immigrants.
Immigration is not a new topic; the subject has sparked political debate and provoked forthright views on all sides for decades, if not centuries. Although we have made huge strides in tackling overt racism in our society over the course of my lifetime, it feels that, over the past five to 10 years, we have gone backwards, certainly when it comes to discussing immigration.
We should at least acknowledge some of the reasons for that. Populations are ever more geographically mobile, while at the same time—in our country, at least—they are less socially mobile. The world is shrinking before our eyes, and successive generations think nothing of upping sticks and making a new home for themselves on the other side of the globe.
Most of that movement is to be celebrated. Indeed, various studies have shown the economic benefits that immigration has brought to the United Kingdom. For example, research from University College London that was published four months ago by the Royal Economic Society demonstrates that European immigrants to the UK have paid far more in taxes than they have ever received in benefits. According to the report’s authors, such migrants help to relieve the fiscal burden on UK-born workers and positively contribute to the financing of public services.
Change in any community can also bring tensions and pressures, and it is important that they are addressed for what they are. If people express concern about being priced out of the labour market and about their wages and conditions being undercut, that has to be addressed in economic terms, not in terms of people’s nationality. Poverty wages are unacceptable whether they are paid to immigrants or native citizens, and exploitation by unscrupulous employers is unacceptable whether the employee is from this country or not.
Others’ complaints about the pressure on public services should be addressed in terms of our public service, not in terms of someone’s country of origin. The health service is under pressure but, as we all know, we are more likely to be treated by a doctor from a different country than we are to wait behind someone from another country in the doctor’s surgery. One think tank recently estimated that 11 per cent of national health service staff and 26 per cent of NHS doctors are non-British. Our national health service—this country’s pride and joy—could not begin to operate without immigration.
The difficulty is that for some in politics and some in the media—and at this point I make it clear that I do not believe that Jean Urquhart’s motion is condemning all involved in both; indeed, like the Government, we will be supporting all the motions and amendments before us today—the impact of immigration on our society is a fear and an anxiety that they can play to instead of addressing directly. Where things get complicated is how we react in turn.
If we overreact and condemn as racist every person who expresses their worries, we will provoke the very backlash that we are trying to address. People need to have and to hear the political language that expresses their anxieties, not be told that they are wrong. The real test of our political leadership is to give people the opportunity to discuss their vulnerability and highlight our common humanity rather than pander to any sense of otherness.
Quite simply, diversity makes Britain stronger. We are richer, stronger and a better country because we have welcomed people from across the world. In Scotland, we are fortunate to live in a vibrant society that has, for the most part, a welcoming approach to immigration.
Outside our two biggest cities—Glasgow and Edinburgh—the East Renfrewshire Council area, which is my local authority area, is Scotland’s most ethnically diverse area. I am proud of the fact that I live in such a tolerant and multicultural community, but I am not blind to the hostility and negativity that can lurk in the very same neighbourhoods.
In 2013, more than 4,500 racist incidents were recorded by Police Scotland. That equates to around 90 recorded racial incidents per week.
I was reminded how far we have come at a dinner earlier this week, when the Rt Hon Peter Hain spoke about his family’s efforts during apartheid and the role that Scotland played at that time. However, in 2013, the employment rate for people from minority ethnicity groups in Scotland sat at 56 per cent compared with an overall employment rate of 71 per cent. That is not right.
Scotland’s national ethnic minorities organisation, BEMIS, recently concluded:
“we should be striving for a Scotland where ethnic minorities are not only passively recognised, but where they are actively incorporated into the way Scotland is imagined to be now and in the future.”
We should be tackling overt racism and the dog-whistle politics of the immigration debate, but we must also do much more to ensure that our society reflects those who live in it. Our neighbourhoods have changed and our communities are the better for it, but we need to tackle poverty, close the employment gap and reduce inequality for those from an ethnic minority background. There is a long struggle still ahead.
I move amendment S4M-12677.3, to insert after “Scottish identity”:
“; believes that more can be done to prevent immigrants being exploited or treated unfairly”.