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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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It was great while it lasted but illegal immigration is killing our Welfare State

THE Welfare State is on its deathbed. The politicians just haven’t realised it yet.


Future generations will not be able to live off their state pensions. The once-generous sums paid to people who cannot – or will not – work will be whittled back. The beloved National Health Service won’t be safe under any Government, Tory or Labour.


The big issues are an ageing population, an economy weighed down by red tape and tax and illegal immigration. It was great while it lasted but a project inspired by liberal, humanitarian ideals in the wake of two world wars has run its course.


For decades, it meant that we lived in a fair, tolerant and orderly society. Most people who paid tax were happy to see part of it used to provide a safety net for the sick and the unfortunate. Lost your job? Here’s something to tide you over. Cancer? Lean on the NHS. Getting older? Don’t worry, we’ll care for you.


But the bill has gone up and up and we simply can’t afford it any more. The noble “cradle to grave” plan of the economist and Liberal politician Lord Beveridge proposed flat-rate contributions for universal provision and was regarded as a model of social justice.


Fast forward 75 years and the five pillars of the Welfare State state are social security; the NHS; education; social housing; and social services for children and the elderly. They still provide some protection when your life implodes but often they are means-tested, most have been pared back and some, like education, are just plain dysfunctional.


More than a third of Government spending goes on welfare – currently something like £230 billion. Forty per cent of that is the bill for pensions, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised will remain triple-locked, protecting them against inflation (anything else would be electoral suicide).


All this would be difficult enough without the huge problem of illegal immigration. But newcomers may well deliver the last rites to a system that the world admired and enlightened nations copied.


Last week we learnt that the cost of the asylum system doubled to almost £4 billion in the last year. It has risen by a factor of six since 2018, when it cost £631 million.


It now costs £6 million a day to accommodate people in hotels while they await the decisions on their asylum claims. The number of cases waiting for an initial decision is up 35 per cent to 134,046.


Those who examine these applications each complete, on average, 1.9 cases a month. A year ago, it was three; in 2016 it was 6.7. Each case costs £20,000 to process.


In other words, the cost of the asylum system is rising exponentially as the backlog gets longer. The British are tolerant people but how long can it be before our collective patience runs out?


The irony is that our welfare system is the very reason so many people are drawn to this country. It offers security where they had none; an education for their children; a comfortable old age. And yet the never-ending arrival of newcomers is killing it.


Politicians are fond of the word radical and use it often when they talk about their plans to curb illegal immigration. It implies root and branch reform. But they only ever tinker at the edges.


In recent times we have had two Prime Ministers who could be called radical: Margaret Thatcher, who was a woman of unwavering conviction; and Tony Blair, who was an undercover radical – and all the more dangerous for that.


Rishi Sunak is a clever man but he is a manager, not a leader. And certainly not a radical. He has no chance of solving the immigration problem. Time is against him, the courts are against him – Rwanda was no real solution anyway – and even his slogan, “Stop the Boats”, is claptrap.


A minority of the latest asylum claims are by people arriving on the South Coast on small boats. Most are by people on temporary visas or travelling on false documents or smuggled in on lorries. So “Stop the Boats” isn’t even the half of it.


Sunak won’t take the necessary radical action for two reasons: First, his parents were hard-working immigrants of Indian descent and he has a natural sympathy for others who wish to come here; second, he would not want a crackdown on immigration to be his sole legacy when he leaves office (which might well be soon).


Don’t imagine that Keir Starmer has the answer, either. He will deal with the backlog by waving immigrants through, just as Blair did, and hope that they will show their eternal gratitude at the ballot box.


Our cities, already crammed, will cease to function properly. Crime will be rife, homes scarce and unaffordable. A close relative who used to work for Immigration enforcement, tells me heart-rending stories of those lured here by people smugglers who now live in the most abject poverty and appalling housing conditions. They are effectively slaves at the mercy of gangs.


This is not merely a scandal, it is a modern evil. It needs to be addressed but the Government is just faffing, seeking headlines with idiotic initiatives. It feels as though the mindset is: “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is.”


No one, certainly not me, wants to see the rise of the far Right, which is happening in Germany, Poland, parts of Eastern Europe and even Scandinavia. But the conditions are right for such a political shift, even in liberal Britain.


The only genuinely radical solution is to dismantle some of the impediments to change. Dump the human rights laws. Reform, or just jettison, the Law of the Sea. Hunt down the people smugglers, wherever they might be, and mete out harsh justice. Use the Royal Navy to turn the boats back.


Sunak could open a new British Consulate in Calais and make clear that anyone who fails to register their asylum claim there and instead crosses by small boat will be prosecuted for entering Britain illegally and never be granted asylum, or citizenship, or be put up in a hotel at British taxpayers’ expense.


We could also sack the civil servants who are failing, perhaps wilfully, to deal with the backlog of illegal immigrants and employ more officials to keep a strict check on those who arrive on work visas, ruthlessly sending back anyone who overstays.


These are the measures we need to take if we want to retain those laws and customs, institutions and innovations that make our country the caring and compassionate place it is.


But many will see them as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Our credentials as a Western liberal democracy would be tarnished. We would lose friends and allies.


And even then, I doubt whether, in the long run, we can save the Welfare State.

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Advertising guru Sir Martin Sorrell is convinced the future for newspapers is digital. This is where the real opportunity lies, he argues in a recent comment piece for The Times.


Who would want to buy a newspaper? The Telegraph titles come up for sale in the next month, with Goldman Sachs in charge of the auction. Circulation of the newspapers is falling off a cliff and the advertising money has switched to digital.


So what is a potential buyer looking for? In the case of the Daily Mail, widely thought to be one of the suitors, it would be to build on their digital presence, says Sorrell. David Montgomery, former News of the World Editor who now runs National World, publishers of The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, would look at what remaining value he can squeeze from the Telegraph and the savings he can make by cutting and pooling costs.


The only other reason for buying is to have a trophy asset. Amazon’s vastly wealthy Jeff Bezos, who knows a thing or two about online selling, bought the venerable Washington Post. But is there a rich enough man in Britain ready to step in for the Telegraph?


Sorrell also says any buyer will have to think of Artificial Intelligence on newspapers. “Newsrooms will probably get smaller and the next generation will be reading their newspapers digitally,” he predicts.


I have no doubt he is right. There are good news websites out there, too; not just the ones built by The Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian.


But you don’t get to turn up for a job interview in Ancoats, Manchester, and see the presses thundering away through the black glass of Beaverbrook’s Lubyanka.


I am so glad I lived through the (late) heyday of the Daily Express, one of the world’s greatest newspapers until its sad, gradual decline under amateur managements and indifferent editors.

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The Relative Values column in The Sunday Times Magazine this week features singer-songwriter Freya Ridings and her actor father Richard, the voice of Daddy Pig in the Peppa Pig TV series.


She says of him: “He’s got the weirdest favourite sandwich in the world: mature cheddar and raspberry jam.”


She’s right, that’s ridiculous! Everyone knows it’s Red Leicester and strawberry jam.


29 August 2023