I was on a mackerel fishing trip near Seahouses. The man beside me in the boat was from the south so I asked him if he was in Northumberland on holiday but no, he had moved here recently
“Why’s that?” I asked, “Have you got family here?”
“No”, he replied, “I moved to Seahouses because there aren’t any foreigners”.
My experience of talking to voters about the EU referendum is that, for many, immigration is an issue.
So let’s talk about immigration. The first point to make is that the majority of immigration to the UK is by people from outside the EU, so leaving won't make any difference to people coming from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia.
Theoretically, leaving the EU could allow us to stop anyone from the EU coming here, but then we would no longer be able to access the European Single Market, which is where the majority of our exports go and on which 67% of North East manufacturing jobs depend. To continue to access this market (the largest single market in the world, with 500 million consumers), we would have to allow free movement of EU citizens into the UK. This is what Norway, who are not in the EU, have to do.
Furthermore, while over 2 million EU citizens are living in the UK, and mainly working here, we do have approximately 1.3 million British subjects living, working and often retired in other EU countries, especially Spain and France. What happens to them if we close our borders to EU immigrants? Answer, no one actually knows.
Alas, the whole immigration debate is one steeped in myth and there are times when folk seem either unable or unwilling to accept the facts.
For instance, I often hear people say that EU immigrants have come to the UK to claim our benefits, when in reality they are less likely to claim benefits than British born citizens are.
The other main issues raised with me by my constituents, along with my responses, are as follows:
EU immigrants are a drain on our economy - no, they are more likely to create jobs by using local shops and services, which increases demand for goods and services, in turn creating more employment opportunities from which we all benefit.
Wage drops are due to EU immigration - no, the biggest cause of recent reductions in real wage value has been the global economic crisis and research shows no relationship with immigration.
High unemployment rates, especially here in the North East, are caused by EU immigration - this is not true either, because areas with high immigration do not have higher rates of unemployed British people than other areas with less immigration.
EU immigrants must be a drain on public services like hospitals and schools - no, they collectively contribute more in tax than they use in public services and they help to staff the NHS.
Crime is brought to the UK by EU immigration - there is no evidence that crime levels increase in line with the number of immigrants living in an area, a fact confirmed to me by our chief constable.
EU immigrants are uneducated and unskilled – no, on average they have higher education attainment levels than British born citizens. The typical profile of a European migrant in Britain is no longer a Polish plumber, but a young, single French or Spanish graduate working in the financial, technology or media industries.
The myths surrounding immigration to the UK were laid bare in a recent report issued by the London School of Economics, with the findings stating that EU immigration to the UK has not harmed British people’s access to jobs, public services or incomes. In fact, it has made us better off.
Next time I go mackerel fishing from Seahouses I hope to find myself standing next to a Frenchman, or a Spaniard, or a Bulgarian and when I ask them why they are here, hopefully I will get the following reply: “I moved to the North East of England because of the welcoming nature of the local people”, and even if I don’t catch a thing, I’ll be celebrating.