Councils providing services for the hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived in the UK from eastern Europe in the past two years are doing so without extra government money, reports Derren Hayes
“Migrants push up council tax” screamed the front pages of the Daily Express and Daily Mail on 8 August.
Considering these two bastions of right-wing tabloid journalism have a reputation for being less than sympathetic towards immigrants you would have been forgiven for thinking this was just another opportunity to reinforce that agenda.
But behind the headlines lay a serious story based on concerns raised by the Local Government Association. According to the LGA, councils are being left out of pocket because the government is underestimating the number of east European migrants from the eight accession (A8) countries that are moving to the UK to work.
In a letter to home secretary John Reid, the LGA said up to 25 councils were having to provide services to these new groups although they had not been funded to do so. Without extra government money savings would have to be made or council tax raised to pay for them.
Figures just published by the government show at least 450,000 A8 people have arrived in the UK to work since May 2004. About 80 per cent are aged 18-35, single, healthy and living in private rented accommodation so would have little need for council services. Also, A8 nationals are unable to access council services until they have lived and worked in the UK for a year.
But councils say they are struggling to cope with the extra demand when eligibility for services does kicks in.
Slough has a Polish community dating to the 1950s, in itself a draw for new arrivals.
Janet Tomlinson, Slough’s strategic director of education and children services, says this is largely being felt by schools. In one term it had to integrate 60 Somalian and 50 Polish children into two separate primary schools. “It’s not just a case of getting another teacher in,” says Tomlinson. “When the children have poor or no English language skills you need to bring in additional support.”
Many of the children arrive with no school records so Slough has set up, with government funding, an assessment centre where children spend a week having their social and academic abilities measured.
“A comprehensive report is produced which can speed up the admissions process. The centre can take up to eight children a week and integrates them better into society,” says Tomlinson.
However, the government funding runs out in September and, if this is not renewed, the centre, which costs £90,000 a year to run, will close. Tomlinson fears this would have far-reaching consequences. “If the assessment centre closes or we’re not able to cope with the influx of children then they could be out of school for long periods and need the attention of social services.”
The first experience of the UK for many arrivals is Victoria coach station in Westminster. Here, evidence is emerging of immigrants having to sleep rough.
Angela Harvey, cabinet member for housing at Westminster Council, says at any one time there are about 30 immigrants sleeping rough on its streets. It has used a £170,000 government grant to employ police community support officers and an interpreter.
Harvey says: “The interpreter realised some of them had been victims of street crime but had not reported it. We’ve asked the government for a welcome desk to be set up at Victoria station but it won’t do it.”
The council is unable to offer the arrivals help so many receive meals from one of the borough’s 50 volunteer soup runs, which has created tension with existing users.
Harvey says the council has paid the fare home for 265 immigrants who had lost work and could not afford to buy a ticket. “These are people who have tried hard to work here – some have worked before in agriculture – but have been unable to and the best thing for them is to go home.”
Many of the immigrants head to the countryside to work in agricultural jobs picking fruit. Derek Allen, homelessness change manager at Herefordshire Council, says one in 10 of its enquiries come from migrant labourers. “Instead of presenting as homeless, many migrant workers successfully secure accommodation in the private rented sector through our homelessness prevention team, which aims to ensure people are rehoused before their situation becomes critical.”
Just three families are living in temporary accommodation in the county, says Allen, but the council has had to step in to prevent migrant workers living in unacceptable private rented accommodation.
He adds: “Publicising information and finding translators and interpreters is important. Without these, you can’t understand need, conduct a full assessment or ensure callers are realistic in their expectations of services available to them.”
Although the impact on most councils is minimal so far, the LGA is concerned greater pressures could arise when the arrivals become settled in communities. Not only will they then be entitled to access the full range of services and benefits but they may bring over their families, which could cause more pressure on social services
But Keith Best, director of the Immigration and Advisory Service, believes such fears are exaggerated: “My concern is whether the LGA is using immigration to get more money for local government finance. I do have sympathy with councils and some are feeling a bit of a squeeze, but it is dangerous for people to jump on the bandwagon before checking the facts.
“People always want to have a scapegoat and it is easy for councils to blame immigrants.”
Easing the culture shock
There are few parts of the UK without foreign workers since the eight accession countries joined the European Union in 2004.
Consequently, many councils are developing ways of helping them settle and integrate into an area.
Herefordshire Council and West Mercia Police have set up a multi-lingual website, www.welcometoherefordshire.com, to provide information on finding a job, education, leisure, transport, and personal safety to the 25,000 seasonal agricultural workers.
The site helps newcomers access services, understand differences in culture and laws and advises on crime prevention.
Glasgow Council has launched a booklet offering similar advice for immigrants from the A8 countries. The 66-page brochure, Welcome to Glasgow, has information about the city. Everything from finding work, learning English and accessing health, education and housing services is covered. Scotland’s largest city has been one of the most popular destinations for east European migrants with experts estimating that up to 5,000 of Scotland’s 35,000 immigrants have settled there in recent years.
The brochure also warns immigrants of their responsibilities, particularly on housing. “There should be no more than two people in each room of your home,” it explains. “If you overcrowd, it causes problems with safety and neighbours. You could be evicted.”
Scotland’s government sees the influx of labour as a chance to stem and ultimately reverse the de-population of the country in recent decades. Last year, the Scottish executive set up its Fresh Talent initiative to attract “talented and motivated people” from abroad to work and study in Scotland.
Its Location Advisory Service has received 11,000 calls from people from 135 countries seeking advice on work and career opportunities, how to set up bank accounts and community groups.