Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has said that non-English-speaking children are changing the character of British schools, as Ukip looks likely to gain its second MP in the Rochester and Strood byelection.
The senior Conservative said an academic report setting out the billions of pounds that EU migrants had added to the economy was “silly” because it only looks at immigration in terms of the financial benefits to the economy.
His comments represent the latest escalation in the negative rhetoric about immigration as the Tories try to stem the flow of supporters to Nigel Farage’s party, which wants radically lower migration and a withdrawal from the European Union.
On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics, Duncan Smith said: “I thought there was a silly report, recently, in the last couple of weeks, that said: ‘Oh look in tax terms they have contributed more.’ First of all you have to take them all the way through to when they get older and they actually start taking from the state.
“You don’t account for the fact that often in many communities they literally change the schooling because so many people arrive not speaking English. You have then got problems you know with local services, transport all that kind of stuff.”
He went on to say that the EU’s principle of free movement of people needs rebalancing and to claim the Germans have privately told him they “need to sort this problem out”.
The report mentioned by Duncan Smith was by two leading migration economists at University College London and said European migrants made a net contribution of £20bn to UK public finances between 2000 and 2011.
Duncan Smith’s confidence about achieving EU reform on immigration echoed that of Sir John Major, the Conservative former prime minister, who also argued the EU will be reasonable about helping Britain with its “huge bulge” in immigration in the short term. Major suggested a short-term pause in free movement could be possible and that national governments should be able to “block alien and unwanted” legislation coming from Brussels.
It was the former prime minister’s second intervention on the EU within days, as support for Ukip and tensions between London and Brussels over immigration reforms increase. In a speech in Germany on Friday, Major predicted there was 50-50 chance of Britain leaving the EU.
On BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, the Tory grandee argued that people will stop voting for Ukip once their economic circumstances improve. However, he acknowledged that “none of the growth in the economy has yet reached wage packets or salary slips”.
“The policies of Ukip, the direction of Ukip is, it seems to me, profoundly un-British in every way. They are anti-everything. They are anti-politics, they are anti-foreigner, they are anti-immigrant, they are anti-aid. I don’t know what they’re for. We know what they are against, and that’s the negativity of the four-ale bar.”
He also suggested Ukip’s stance on foreign aid contrasted with “the huge generosity of the British people” towards charitable causes including Children in Need and the fight against Ebola.
“People, even in times of hardship, are prepared to put their hands in their pockets and be generous to other people,” he said. “What a counterpoint that is to the negativity and sheer nastiness of much of what Ukip stands for.”
The attack on Ukip contrasts with the careful way many other senior Tories have been reluctant to criticise the party directly, since David Cameron antagonised its supporters in 2006 by branding them a bunch of “fruit cakes and loonies and closet racists”.
Tim Aker, Ukip’s policy chief, responded to Major on Twitter, saying the former prime minister “has some cheek saying Ukip engage in anti-politics” when he presided over the New Labour, New Danger posters.
Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, said he thought it was a “tragedy for Britain that we are seeing more effective leadership from an ex-Conservative prime minister than the present Conservative prime minister.” He told Sky News: “Of course there is reform and change that can be secured within Europe in relation to immigration and in relation to other issues. I thought John Major made a convincing case that change is possible.
“The tragedy for the UK is that we have a prime minister today who is so weak in the face of his own backbenchers internally, and the threat of Ukip externally, that he seems incapable of grasping that reform opportunity.”
Alexander acknowledged the “scale of immigration we have seen in recent years has brought to bear particular pressures on particular communities, that’s why we need to see sensible reforms”.
Although Ukip is a bigger threat to the Tories, Labour was last night urged by Len McCluskey, the head of Unite, to attack Nigel Farage’s party more forcefully because it is picking up votes in working class areas of the north.
He told the Financial Times: “There has been a view in the Labour party for a while that, ‘let’s not worry about Ukip’. They may take votes from Labour but they’ll take seats from the Conservatives. So there hasn’t been that full-frontal attack that we’ve been arguing for … Is it true that migrant workers are undercutting pay? Yes. Who’s to blame for that? Not the migrant workers but the greedy bosses who are allowed to get away with it.”
McCluskey welcomed the fact that Labour was talking more about immigration but added: “Ed Miliband has got to be seen as being on people’s sides and he has got to talk to people in a way that they get the message. That’s one of the advantages that people say Farage has.”
He also warned that Unite, Labour’s biggest backer, will campaign hard against public spending cuts in the next parliament.
Tories are still grappling over whether they can achieve any meaningful reform of immigration rules in Europe that will satisfy voters tempted by Ukip. The Cameron is due to set out his position in a speech by the end of the year, but other countries, including Germany and Ireland, have made it clear that the free movement of people should not be up for negotiation.
Cameron is also facing a headache over Britain’s EU budget contributions in the week of the Rochester and Strood byelection, after it emerged Britain had abstained in a vote about whether to hand over an extra £400m to boost the bloc’s contingency fund this year. The Sunday Times reported suspicions in Europe that this was part of a secret deal made by George Osborne, the chancellor, in return for delayed payment of the separate £1.7bn bill that was retrospectively demanded by the EU from the UK. This was denied by the Treasury.
However, a letter submitted by Nicky Morgan, then financial secretary to the Treasury, has emerged which stated the government did not agree with the request for extra spending in June 2014. It said the commission should look at reallocating money rather than “coming to member states with requests for additional money”.
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