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Cameron Penny is a financial services lobbyist.

One of my lasting memories from the Eastleigh by-election campaign is knocking on numerous doors and hearing the same concern from residents. Bear in mind that we campaigned all over Eastleigh, and many of the developments we walked displayed the relatively comfortable prosperity of their inhabitants; gardens were well kept, houses had been maintained and the cars parked outside were newish and shiny. Yes the town centre was a little ropey, and a landlord explained to me that 60 per cent of their net salary went to pay for childcare so they and their partner could work. So all was not rosey, but people were getting by, some better than others. However, the economy wasn’t what people wanted to talk about. Instead they talked of immigrants and concerns about them. Yet – and to be blunt – there was hardly any sign of immigrants in Eastleigh. A couple of houses out of the many I visited were occupied by Poles but I think that was it. In fact only 7.3 per cent of Eastleigh denizens are “foreign-born.”

Still, immigration deeply concerned the good people of Eastleigh. It also concerned Diane James, UKIP’s by-election candidate. Both should have relaxed a little, and looked behind the headlines at the numbers. According to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford in 2012 there were 1.4m UK citizens living in other EU member states. Meanwhile, in the UK, there were 2.2m EU citizens living here. Net EU immigration since the UK became a member of the EEC sits at around 800,000 people. That’s since 1973 – so roughly 20,000 people per year since then. Let’s also remember that freedom of movement is not a novel invention by bureaucrats and power-broking globalists in Brussels: it was part of the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

EU migration is not new, and indeed the rights afforded to UK citizens as nationals of an EU member state are widely enjoyed. This hasn’t stopped some from trying to fuel a poisonous debate. Whenever I voice support for migratio,n I’m accused of being a stooge for ‘big business’; our papers are filled on a daily basis with stories about immigrants committing benefit fraud or indeed claiming benefits to which they are legally entitled.

How should the mature debate go? I’d suggest something along these lines. As a member state of the EU, along with lower roaming charges on your hols in Alicante, you get the right to live in any other member state, the right to work in any other member state and the right to retire in any other member state. Sounds like a good deal; especially given our weather. In return, other people from fellow member states are allowed the same rights, although it’s doubtful many will be burdening our care home network given a) its cost b) its periodic abuses and c) did I mention the weather?

Why, then, are people, particularly certain politicians and journalists, badmouthing immigration? One side of the debate says it’s because they are liberated from decades of politically correct doublespeak in which any mention of immigrants meant you definitely weren’t part of the Cool Britannia project. Now that people can voice their concerns and prejudices without losing access to the wine and canapés trolley their tongues are loosened. The other side of this would suggest that immigrants are a wholly positive asset for the country and in times of economic hardship and nascent recovery it suits populist politicians to start turning their rhetoric and hence public ire against, as Anna Soubry said, “the stranger.”

There is an alternative argument. First, we already have in place restrictions on immigrants from within and without the EU claiming benefit. Even for citizens of countries such as France and Germany you cannot claim benefit unless you have the “right to reside” which for those looking for work, i.e. the unemployed, means they must be looking for work they have “a reasonable chance of getting”, according to HMRC. Second,  we also need to allow the Work and Pensions Secretary to continue with his herculean efforts to reform the welfare system so that work pays for everyone. Third, those with their hand on the public loudspeaker should show more responsibility for their actions. Those coming from other member states to work in the UK are not committing a crime. They are exercising the same legal right that enables Aunty Iris to go and see out the remains of the day lounging by a pool in Andalucía or for your mate Bob to go and work at a leading engineering firm in Munich.

As for those who complain that ‘big business’ is the sole beneficiary from freedom of movement, perhaps you’d care to pause and think about who mans your favourite coffee shop, newsagents or drove your taxi last. If there are ‘native’ Brits not working and immigrants who are, then we need to sort out problems with education, training and our national work ethic. It’s no good to restrict the flow of human capital in a world of economic and political power blocs, free trade areas and the most interconnected global economy ever known. It’s no good sitting and moan that others will work longer, harder and for a more competitive wage.

The Conservative Party should start telling the public a few home truths and build a positive narrative in favour of migration from and to the UK whilst putting in place responsible measures to ensure nobody can abuse benefits. Certainly better that than visiting our fearful prejudices on those who’ve paid this country the greatest compliment possible by coming here to live and contribute.

148 comments for: Cameron Penny: Europe’s free movement of peoples is a blessing, not a curse

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