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Briefings

Culture and crime

in | by Hugo Dixon

One Eurosceptic argument against the free movement of people is that it is diluting our culture. Some Brits clearly do not like to have too many foreigners in our midst, including Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, who, despite being married to a German, said in 2014 he felt awkward hearing foreign languages being spoken on the train.

While Farage’s comments may be extreme, many Brits do think that migrants should speak good English so they can integrate better with our society. What’s more, some foreigners living here – for example, about a quarter of Poles (according to 2011 census data) – don’t speak good English. However, the solution is to put more resources into adult education so newcomers can learn better English rather than to pull up the drawbridge. What’s more, we shouldn’t forget how the influx of Italians, Poles, French, Greeks and others is enriching our culture. Think of how food, fashion, aesthetic sense in general has improved over the last generation. UK citizens appreciate these aspects of immigration.

Cultural enrichment is not a new phenomenon either. For two thousand years, Britain has benefited from having a fairly open door to immigration. Think of the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Huguenots, Jews, Indians, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Afro-Caribbeans and countless other people who have come to our shores. We have taken some of the best things from their cultures, mixed them with our own and created something new and vibrant. EU immigration is having a similar effect. Of course, not everybody likes the idea of his or her culture being enriched in this way – and the number of immigrants is now much larger than it was, say, in the days of the Huguenots. But the more people experience such cross-fertilisation, generally the more they like it. London, for example, which is the most cosmopolitan part of the UK, was also second least susceptible to UKIP’s charms in the European Parliament elections (after Scotland).

Another complaint is that we cannot plan for the use of public services like schools and hospitals because we simply don’t know how many people will come and where they will go. It is true that public services can get overloaded in parts of the country where there are high concentrations of immigrants. But the solution is for the government to give extra funds to local authorities where this is a problem, not to pull out of the EU. The last Labour government set up a fund for exactly this purpose but the coalition scrapped it. Cameron has now thankfully agreed to restore it.

Yet another criticism is that our island is just too crowded and, in particular, that free movement is adding to our housing crisis. The shortage is particularly acute at the bottom of the market. Although EU immigrants do not use publicly funded housing nearly as intensively as natives, they still make it harder for locals to find such homes. Again, though, we have the ability to solve the inadequate supply of homes ourselves. We must, for example, make it easier to build homes on so-called brownfield sites like abandoned factories and contaminated petrol stations; let developers build high-rise blocks of flats in London; and discourage people from living in houses that are too big for their needs or are even left empty.

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Finally, there is the allegation that EU immigration is fuelling crime. UKIP stated in its European election campaign that 7% of all crime across the 28 EU member states was caused by 240 Romanian gangs. The actual report in The Times said that these Romanian gangs represented 7% of all criminal networks active in Europe – which is very different, not least because lots of crime has nothing to do with gangs. What’s more, most of these Romanians are “petty criminals” engaged in pickpocketing and card crime, according to a Europol official quoted by The Times. Meanwhile, the Italian mafia “continue to pose a more sinister threat, notably the ’Ndrangheta from Calabria, which dominates the supply of cocaine in Europe and has used its wealth and power to take over businesses and corrupt politicians,” according to the report. UKIP didn’t mention all that.

What the party did do was claim in its European Parliament election manifesto that “28,000 Romanians are held for crimes in London”. Again, the statistic was misleading. The figure relates to a five-year period. What’s more, it refers to arrests – which is different from actual convictions, and ignores the fact that some people are arrested more than once. Using UKIP’s logic, one could have extrapolated from the 20 million crimes recorded in England and Wales in 2010-2014 (see xls document) that there are 20 million criminals in the country. This would be absurd.

Crime is, of course, a serious issue but there is no evidence that it is more prevalent among EU immigrants than native Brits. In September 2015, there were 3,950 EU nationals in jail in England & Wales or roughly 5% of the prison population (see Prison Population xls document). That was equal to the number of EU nationals as a proportion of the total population of England & Wales.

In conclusion, free movement is good for the UK both economically and culturally. But this doesn’t mean that everything about it is perfect or that everybody benefits. We need policies both at a national and an EU level to ameliorate the problems, while also appreciating that they are often blown out of proportion by unscrupulous politicians. What we shouldn’t do is shoot ourselves in the foot by quitting the EU.

This is an excerpt from “The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better” by Hugo Dixon. 

Factchecking by Luke Lythgoe