Sutton Coldfield: “It’s all about checks and balances”

It’s all about checks and balances” – one participant in our Sutton Coldfield citizen’s panel used this phrase so often that a couple of others started teasing him about it. But it was a pretty accurate summing-up of the mixed and balanced views of the people in the room.

As we have seen in many other places across the UK, most people were keen to point out that they bear migrants no ill will and can see the benefits of immigration to their area and to the country. Yet at the same time they are worried about the pressures that increased population and the accommodation of people from different cultures can place on communities.

Several panel members worked alongside migrants and most recognized that ‘they do the jobs that British people don’t want to’. This idea of contribution was very important. “If you’re going to go to work, I’ve got more time for you,” said one panel member, contrasting the hard-working migrants he knew working in social care with Local Brits unwilling to move off benefits. “We need people who are contributing, we can’t have people sucking the land dry,” said another.

If working hard and paying taxes is one aspect of integration, learning English was seen as just as important. Some participants mentioned that they had personally struggled to communicate with migrants on buses or in the street, while others were more concerned about the impact on school resources when translators are needed in classes to help new arrivals to understand.

“I do think if people are coming into our country, they should embrace our laws, what our values are, and most of all speak our language.”

 “Language is a problem. In schools there are times when the whole class gets held up.”

While people were worried about the impact on public services, they acknowledged migration’s benefits to the economy. While seeing Polish and other new shops springing up in an area was discombobulating for some, others thought it had helped regenerate certain areas.  Another participant who worked in the service industry lamented the lack of lower-skilled labour compared to ten years previously. Others, however, suggested that the large pool of migrant workers had made it harder for people they knew to find work.

People conceded that they didn’t see a huge amount of immigration in Sutton Coldfield, a fairly prosperous town about 15 minutes’ train ride from the centre of Birmingham. “If you ask some people about Birmingham they think it’s the other side of the world so we do live in our own little micro-climate here,” said one participant. People got most of their information about migration from social media or the news rather than personal experience. Asked about refugees and asylum, one man said:

You see Syria and you think if we can help them let’s help them… but then you see Calais and they’re jumping on lorries…. You see groups or 20-something males with no check on who they are… we don’t know anything about them and we’re just opening the doors to them.”

That chimed with several of the panel’s broader views on the immigration system – that it didn’t offer sufficient controls on who could and could not settle in Britain and was not good enough at getting rid of people like convicted criminals. Other countries, particularly Australia and the US, were seen as having more rigorous systems for vetting who could enter: so a system that set limits but welcomed skilled and contributing migrants, with improved policing of the system, would address much of their concerns. As one woman put it, “I don’t think it’s really the case of immigration being the problem, it’s more how people are entering the country, and the controls on the people.”

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