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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

It’s a myth that immigration affects wages – we must fight to protect free movement

20th September 2016

When did people in Britain stop blaming the Government for low wages and start pointing the finger at their neighbours? When did they stop asking the Government to solve unemployment and instead turn on their colleagues? When did people decide it is those who dress our wounds in hospital and pick the vegetables for our table who are responsible for the struggles we face? When was it decided that for the Government’s failings those people must leave?

The Green Party fought hard for the UK to remain in the EU, but now as we face the reality of the vote to leave the fight has changed. Now at stake are freedoms EU membership offered – not least free movement. The one that is about human beings, not goods.

EU workers have been unfairly scapegoated and wrongly held responsible for the very real struggles facing people across Britain today. In a gradual but steady narrative of fear, climaxing in the EU referendum, people in Britain have been taught to blame people who have moved here from other EU countries for a mess which is of the Government’s making.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves today continued that dangerous narrative as she argued that free movement has caused wages to drop. Yet research from the London School of Economics has shown this is an oversimplification. Areas in Britain with the biggest rises in workers from other EU countries have not suffered greater drops in pay, it found. The big picture is that migrant workers do not have a negative impact on jobs or housing – although some places which have seen sudden population increases should get extra support and investment. EU workers are also less likely to use the NHS or to claim benefits and make an important net contribution to our economy, LSE said.

The real problems are the Government’s failure to enforce the minimum wage, its cuts to vital services such as the NHS and other public services, including cuts to jobs, and its failure to provide young people with the training and skills they need. The Government has been let off the hook for these failings and it is time it is held to account.

One third of all EU migrants live in my constituency of London and their contribution has not only been economic. They have brought their cultures with them and increased social and global interconnected of the capital. London voted to remain in the EU, but outside of the capital there was a clear voice of dissent as people opted to leave.

So how can we make sure the benefits of free movement Londoners enjoy are felt across the country?

For a start, the Government must ensure all workers receive the minimum wage – particularly in industries like agriculture. But for most even this is not enough to survive. We must fight for a truly Living Wage, based on what people actually need to live, to eradicate the abysmally low wages which have left so many unable to pay their bills and feed their families. But we must also invest in education to give people, particularly young people, the skills and training they need to secure work. The struggle many face has not been caused by free movement, as we have been told, but is the result of an education system that prepares our young people for tests, instead of life, and the stripping back of adult education.

But we also must not forget that while ending free movement may be a red line for Reeves, maintaining it is a red line for the other countries in the EU. They have made it plain the UK will not get access to the single market without free movement and it is naïve to think we will get our way. Instead of deceiving the public we must accept free movement and make it work for everyone.

And let us not forget the freedom is ours to share, and there are more than 1 million British expats currently enjoying their right to live elsewhere in Europe. They know that what we stand to lose by pulling up the drawbridge is of greater value than what we mistakenly believe we will protect. With Labour MPs like Reeves calling for an end to free movement and little voice from the so-called opposition party, it is the Greens standing up for migrants. Because whoever is in charge we will always campaign to keep free movement and make it work for everyone.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman.

The Green Party will campaign for migrants rights