Minister Highlights Public Disquiet Over Migrants’ Access To Services

Minister highlights public disquiet over migrants' access to services

Labour needs to engage in debate on immigration
Trust broken in fairness of health allocation

Patrick Wintour, political editor
The Guardian,
Tuesday February 19 2008

Labour must encourage debate on immigration and accept there is public disquiet about the way new arrivals to Britain access public services, according to a junior minister.

Pat McFadden, minister of state for employment relations and chairman of Labour's National Policy Forum, said yesterday many people believed the relationship between fairness and public service provision was “broken”.

In a challenging speech last night, McFadden, a former deputy chief of staff at Downing Street under Tony Blair, also urged the party to recognise that reform of public services had to go further, saying the debate on GPs opening hours was only the beginning.

The minister, who is playing an important role in drawing up Labour's election manifesto, also suggested there was a danger that the debate on climate change was starting to leave the public behind.

He called for the party to end its “sterile” discussion about the governance of schools and city academies, adding that the problem was not that the government had introduced too much reform in education but rather too little.

He argued Labour's fate at the next election would largely depend on “whether voters feel we understand the future and can lead Britain through it”. The updating of Labour's programme is due to be completed this summer.

In perhaps the most controversial passage in his speech to the Young Fabians, McFadden said that leftwing parties had traditionally shied away from discussing migration “associating it with use by the right to whip up fears or foster division. But one of the things most frustrating for the public, the vast majority of whom are not racist, is the sense that you're not allowed to talk about this, that whatever they feel it is beyond the boundaries of legitimate discussion.”

He said immigration had been good for the economy, but had also raised questions about the “allocation of public goods”.

“Most people in Britain have a view of public services based on the concept of exchange – they believe if someone has worked hard and paid in then it is legitimate for them to draw down help when it is needed, in the form of NHS treatment, state pension or whatever,” he said.

“Yet often public service operates on the principle of need, not exchange. This is not solely an issue of migration – the question of needs-based allocations and exchange-based concepts of fairness apply widely – but migration can sharpen the issue because of a sense that the rules of entitlement have either been broken or do not work in a fair way.”

He said a debate was growing about whether “the right to stay long-term in the country” should be “based on a sense of reciprocity, of a two-way street, where rights of residence go alongside respect for the law and playing by the rules”.

Public services, he said, had yet to respond to changing times.

“If government is really to deliver services which suit the public,” he said, “there will have to be a lot more extended opening hours and weekend access than there is at present. Too often the public experience of accessing public service is to take time out to fit around how the service operates. It should be the other way round.”

He also endorsed city academies and school trusts, saying: “We need to move on from a sterile debate about governance to a realisation that these reforms are essential to giving some of the most disadvantaged children in the country more opportunities than they have enjoyed up until now.

“The question about our education reforms so far is not whether they have gone too far but whether they have gone far enough.”

He backed welfare reforms to help the unemployed back to work, saying: “In many parts of the country – though not all – opportunities are there. But people need the skills, the motivation and in some cases the pressure to take advantage of them”.