Aberdeen: demanding more transparency from government

The National Conversation’s fourth destination was Aberdeen, which we visited after Whitley Bay. Although it was close to freezing when we arrived, the first Scottish strawberries had already hit the supermarkets – plant breeding and plastic tunnels have enabled farmers along Scotland’s East Coast to extend the growing season of much soft fruit, giving us Scottish strawberries in early March. But this feat would not be possible without migrant workers, mostly from the EU.

As well as holding a citizens’ panel, we met with council representatives and community organisations from Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Council. An estimated 17.5% of the city’s  population was born overseas, with long-established Bangladeshi and Chinese communities and the largest group of new arrivals coming from Poland. There are two universities in the city, educating nearly 7,000 international students between them. Neither Aberdeen nor Aberdeenshire provide accommodation for asylum-seekers, but these two local authorities have been very generous to Syrian refugees resettled in the UK from camps in the Middle East, between them offering to take 150 families and individuals.

Our visit to Aberdeen was the first we made to Scotland, part of the UK where some previous research suggests that there is less opposition to immigration than in England and Wales. Certainly, the majority of the citizens’ panel was happy for the numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees to be increased, in contrast to the panels in Bradford, March and Whitley Bay. There were also fewer concerns about those migrants being perceived as taking advantage of welfare benefits than in our previous panels.

But this panel also voiced many similar issues. Aberdeen is a city of stark inequalities, of oil millionaires and foodbanks. As in other parts of the UK, new migrants from the EU have often settled where housing is affordable, most usually deprived neighbourhoods. In Aberdeen, many new migrants are living in the granite tenements of Tillydrone and Torry. As in Bradford, poverty, poor housing and pressures on public services make integration more difficult to achieve and can contribute to resentment. “We don’t have the infrastructure -schools are my main concern, and I worry about my daughter’s school” said one panel member, “although migration brings a lot to the nation.”

Over the last 15 years, opinion polls show that about two thirds of the public is not satisfied with the way that the Government has handled immigration. This poor rating of Government performance may be linked to many factors, not only the failure to meet the net migration target. One of the key aims of the National Conversation is to look at what needs to change in order for the majority of the public to support and trust the Government in its handling of immigration. From the first four citizens’ panels, one view has come out very strongly in all: the need for openness and transparency. “We need to know about the good points, the bad things and the grey areas…Ask a question and the prime minister should answer it straight,” said an Aberdeen panel member.

Many of those we have heard from felt they were being duped or lied to by the Government  and by politicians more broadly. This may relate to a general lack of trust in those who hold political power, as well the coverage of immigration in social and print media. There are no easy answers to this problem and no guarantee that accessible and independent sources of information on immigration would be trusted by the public. Maybe we need to ask deeper questions: about how politicians connect with their constituents and seek their views on a range of salient issues, not just immigration. We hope that the National Conversation will help show one way to do this, demonstrating the value of such public engagement in policy-making when it is done well.

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