Berwick-upon-Tweed: In order to win back public trust on immigration, business in the UK needs to consider its role and responsibilities

Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland was our fourth and final destination for our visits to the North East. Just two miles south of the border, administration of the town has passed between England and Scotland changed hands at least 13 times in its history. It is a market town and the largest settlement in the area. Consequently, Berwick’s residents, and those who work or shop in the town, are both English and Scottish. Our citizens’ panel reflected this mix and was made up of those who identified as English and those identified as Scottish, living and working both north and south of the border.

Most of the citizens’ panel were ‘balancers’ who saw the benefits from skilled migration, particularly from migrants working in the NHS. However, many people voiced strong opinions about the labour market impacts of migration which they felt had undercut local wages and working conditions. We were told:

“It’s great that we’ve got people coming in to take skilled jobs, like doctors and things like that, but a lot of the jobs are unskilled too. And in local areas people are struggling to get jobs, because unfortunately sometimes employers take advantage of that, because they can get cheap foreign labour so they’re paying minimum wage for these jobs”

Employment agencies were blamed for bringing in migrant workers to do low paid work that local people would not do. Some participants in the Berwick citizens’ panel also raised the possibility of exploitation, telling of migrant workers paid just £80 a week in cash for five nights at sea. They felt that these migrant workers had a hard time adapting to life in this area, with many struggling to overcome language barriers or inexperienced in fishing work, which could be dangerous.

“The agencies bring them over because the locals aren’t willing to go to sea because there’s no money, no fishing, and they’re not guaranteed much. And it’s not safe”.

The local stakeholders we met felt that the closure of some key factories, little skilled work in the area and recent migration to an area without much history of welcoming newcomers had led to some resentment about immigration, and pockets of hostility:

“We’ve got a lot of very frightened people dealing with the consequences of a lack of opportunities, a lack of jobs and a lack of ways to improve their lives.

Both Northumberland and the Scottish Borders have experienced a loss of population until recently, with rural areas still losing population – including many young people who leave to go to university and don’t return. One of the reasons for this population loss is that there is not enough skilled work for these young graduates. Berwicks local economy relies on tourism, agriculture, fishing and fish processing and in recent years the town has lost some key industry, including fishing, carpet manufacture and the Jus-Roll pastry factory. A lack of skilled work opportunities for local people was keenly felt by this citizens’ panel:

“The reason there’s an aging population is just there’s more opportunity elsewhere, there’s nothing up here”.

The Scottish Government and the local authorities of North East England are committed to stabilising their population. They see migration – from elsewhere in the UK or further afield – as means of driving local economies, as well as keeping rural services viable. But in this part of the UK, and in Wales and the South West of England, there is a gap between the aims of policymakers and the local population. In Berwick, unemployment and the loss of skilled work opportunities underpinned many of the anxieties about immigration for the citizens’ panel. They did not see population decline as a threat to the local area. Similar to Dumfries, Paisley and Lerwick, demographic challenges did not resonate. Instead, the panel felt that if migration from the EU fell, there would be more work available for local people and wages would increase.

Clearly, councils and the Scottish Government need to engage the public in the debate about population and migration. Encouraging businesses that provide high-skilled jobs to invest in the area would also help stem the loss of young graduates and the sense that there were few opportunities in the area. In a place such as Berwick it is essential that Scottish and English local authorities, national governments and business groups work together to do this.

Our visit to Berwick highlighted the overlay of immigration and integration in public attitudes to immigration, something we have written about before. We were told that the migrants who fished or worked in processing factories often spoke little English and they kept themselves to themselves. One of our participants had worked on a fish smokery and described segregated production lines and language barriers inside the factory.

“When I worked at Farne Salmon it was full of Polish …there was hardly any English ones in it. I didn’t like it because, they just look at you, and if you ask them a question they can’t really speak back to you….They just speak amongst themselves.”

This panel felt strongly that migrants should be able to speak English or show willingness to learn the language after they arrived. There were questions about the role of business, with the panel more believing that employers should help new migrants to learn English, and adapt to their new homes.

Yet employers have been largely absent from debates about integration in England and in Scotland. Apart from a recommendation on encouraging greater take-up of apprenticeships among minority ethnic groups, there were few recommendations aimed at employers in England’s recent green paper on integration. This situation contrasts with countries such as Germany and the United States where employers are more involved in the integration debate. Our visit to Berwick showed strongly that in order to win back public trust on immigration, business in the UK needs to consider its role and responsibilities when it comes to integration.

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