- - Wednesday, October 19, 2011

LONDON — British political leaders from the left and the right are blaming liberal immigration policies for driving down living standards amid a financial crisis that has prompted the Conservative-led government to cut welfare programs to prevent fiscal collapse.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who said this year that multiculturalism has failed in Britain, is calling on immigrants to learn English fluently, “make a contribution” to the economy and society and avoid being a “burden on the welfare system and the taxpayer.”

Labor Party leader Ed Miliband recently conceded that his party “got some things wrong” on immigration during its 13 years in power. He acknowledged public concern that a rapid influx of Eastern Europeans in the past decade has driven down living standards in Britain.

“This clearly had effects on people right up and down the country, and we’ve clearly got to learn those lessons for the future,” Mr. Miliband told the BBC.

The government is focusing on immigration and its impact on society amid a European financial crisis that has forced budget austerity measures across the Continent.

Britain recently experienced its worst recession in more than 60 years. Gross domestic product fell by more than 6 percent from the first quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009.

A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies said tax increases and spending cuts to welfare and public services also have sent living standards plummeting.

The report found that the middle class will suffer the biggest drop in average incomes in 35 years, taking their salaries back to 2003-04 levels. It also noted that poverty is forecast to rise by about 600,000 children and 800,000 working-age adults.

Britain has the third-largest population of foreign-born citizens in Europe. More than 4 million people in Britain were born abroad, 6.6 percent of the population of 63 million. They include people born abroad to British nationals.

Germany has the largest number of foreign-born citizens in Europe, with 7.2 million, followed by Spain, with 5.2 million.

Opinion polls consistently have shown that the British public favors a reduction in immigration.

A poll this week from the nonpartisan Migration Observatory at Oxford University found that 69 percent of respondents want immigration reduced, an amount consistent with surveys conducted over the past 50 years.

The poll also shows a lack of knowledge among the British public about who immigrants are. When thinking about immigration, 62 percent of respondents were most likely to think of asylum-seekers.

However, official statistics show that foreign students represent the largest group of immigrants coming to the Britain. In 2009, 37 percent of new immigrants were students and 4 percent were asylum-seekers.

Rob McNeil from the Migration Observatory said immigration is a complex issue in which perceived benefits in one area may be offset by “negative” impacts in another.

He said there is evidence to suggest that British immigration has caused slight wage depression in lower-skilled sectors in the short term, while it also has contributed to increases in wages in higher-skilled sectors.

“Some may argue that in sectors where wages are already low, this adds to people’s difficulties,” Mr. McNeil said. “But if the overall economic impacts are positive and lead to rising labor demand, then there may be longer-term benefits even for people with lower wages.

“The employment rate for Polish men in Britain is 90 percent, compared with 75 percent for male Brits, so comparatively few end up relying on the benefits system,” he added.

The prime minister has proposed cutting net immigration, which includes families of visa holders, from about 196,000 a year now to fewer than 100,000 by 2015. The country has imposed tougher limits on the number of non-Europeans allowed to work in the country.

In a recent speech, Mr. Cameron insisted that all immigrants who want to come to Britain to join relatives must speak English fluently. He also called on immigrants to learn English before they are eligible for welfare.

“We’re saying that if there’s something you need to help you get a job, for instance being able to speak English and learn English properly, it should be a requirementin order for you to receive your benefits,” he said.

The English-language requirement is getting mixed responses from longtime British immigrants.

Ruth Alexander Smith, who has dual South African and British citizenship and has lived in Britain for 15 years, said: “If someone is in a position of authority - a doctor or a teacher, for example - they should be able to speak English.

“But for a person not in such a position, it seems a bit harsh to expect them to speak fluently before they come. They’ll pick it up while they’re here.”

Amina Sbaiti, who moved to London from Morocco 20 years ago, disagreed.

“I think people should have to learn English before they come if they are going to stay a long time,” she said. “Too much money has been spent on translating everything for people who don’t speak the language.”

She also endorsed tighter limits on immigration.

“Limiting the number of people who come to the country is a good thing,” Ms. Sbaiti said. “It’s hard for our children, who were born here, to get jobs because there is not much around, and they are in competition with people who are not from here.”

Robert Joyce, the author of the Institute of Fiscal Studies report, said the single biggest factor contributing to the decline in living standards is a reduction in earnings, which will hit those on middle incomes the hardest. He added that welfare cuts are increasing poverty.

“Both of these are delayed effects of the recession,” he said. “The economy got smaller, and somebody, somewhere had to bear the brunt. The government has chosen to reduce child-contingent benefits so families with children will be hit harder by the cuts.”

Using macroeconomic forecasts, the institute expects average incomes to hit a low point in 2012 and 2013. Mr. Joyce added that immigration is obviously not the “big driver of the fall in living standards that we are seeing at the moment and the near future.”

Instead, with the economy in crisis, it is likely that Eastern European immigrants will continue to head home.

In 2008, when the economy slowed and entered recession, a study from the Institute of Public Policy Research found that of the 1 million Poles who arrived in Britain since 2004, half had returned to Poland.