How immigrants are revitalising London

The one-sided view of immigrants as leeches that worm their way through the indigenous population is

Not a day passes without a storm of anti-immigrant propaganda in the press. The leading exponent of this mischief is the Daily Mail. As I write, it announces a "Polish baby boom: fears for NHS and schools as a thousand Polish children are born every month". It goes on: "On current trends, there will be more than 13,000 such births this year," while "240,000 eastern European children have arrived in Britain's schools".

Yet the parents of these children pay taxes, too. And it takes no more than two months in their first class for them to catch up with local children and progressively bypass them.

I took a minicab from Waterloo to Camberwell last week. The driver apologised profusely because he had to pick up his daughter from school along the way. As soon as she got in, she started to read the billboards we passed. Here was an agile mind, a natural leader who will bring her English classmates in her wake. She is no burden, more an asset to her school. I confirmed as much from teachers in my community. The children of Polish immigrants overtake the locals in the twinkling of an eye.

These cries of crisis in British hospitals and schools have little material basis. They simply are attempts to get extra funds from the Treasury by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment.

I live in a south London community, stretching from Streatham to Norbury, where many eastern Europeans have settled. The men are largely in the building trade; the women find work in the service sector. They live in houses bought for letting. "Buy to let" is an expanding business in these parts, and the rents are exorbitant. Neighbourhoods have been rescued from oblivion by the presence of eastern European immigrants, who have joined Indians, Pakistanis, Africans and West Indians.

Many of these eastern Europeans are single men. They work from sun-up to sundown, whatever the weather, supplying skilled labour for roadworks and building sites. They have broken the monopoly not only of the British plumber, but of building trades from carpentry to decoration. The costs of refurbishing homes and building new ones have fallen spectacularly.

Many of the young women are domestic workers, with skills from child-minding to window cleaning, who lessen the burden of middle-class working women. Others have helped to rein vigorate the fading high streets of old England. The cheap labour provided by eastern European women can be seen in small restaurants, dry-cleaners, cosmetics shops and bars. This is a young, healthy population that costs the health service little. They are largely law-abiding, costing little by way of police, courts and prisons.

Their contribution to the revenue of the UK government far outstrips any cost to the Treasury. The Polish builder conceived in a Polish womb in Poland was delivered in a Polish hospital. He attended Polish primary and secondary schools. He was trained at technical colleges in Poland. All this costs the Treasury not one penny. The worker just turns up on our shores ready for exploitation.

Yet the one-sided view of immigrants as leeches that worm their way through the indigenous population is laying the basis for social conflict. And these half-truths are spread throughout the press for political ends. The Conservatives never let up and Labour is drawn along.

Mrs Howe and I, both of immigrant stock, go out of our way to embrace these new additions to our society. There is much to learn from the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Czechs, the Slovaks and the rest of them. And we must fend off that malign spirit which generates the xenophobia that is so native to the UK.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future