Does Britain's sense of fair play attract immigrants?

Citizenship ceremony in Ealing Many new British citizens believe they will be treated more fairly in here than in their former home

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Britain's generous welfare state, and the English language, are often cited as the main draws for immigrants coming to these shores. But are they also attracted here for more ideological reasons, that shed light on what the British sense of fairness means?

In a small, nondescript room attached to the public library in the London borough of Ealing, an assorted group of people - men women and children, black, brown and white - rise to their feet, announce their names and swear an oath of allegiance.

They have just become British citizens.

This little ceremony takes place almost every day of every week in towns and cities across the country.

What is fairness today?

Radio 4's Today programme has been running a series of reports and discussions investigating fairness.

Modest it may be, with no heavily bewigged judge in scarlet robes, just a former mayor standing patiently beside a furled Union flag, waiting to hand out certificates.

But it is hard not to be a bit moved all the same.

"Becoming British is a very important event in my life, because I feel that this country treats people like human beings," new citizen Orlena Lavrenchuk, who has come here from Ukraine, tells me.

Being treated like a human being means being treated fairly. For her, this means leaving a country where you need money and power to be successful, and joining one where all you need is to be "honest and have enough skills".

John Humphrys interviews Orlena Lavrenchuk Orlena Lavrenchuk believes Britain will be a fair place to live "if you do things correctly"

"If I do things correctly," she says, "I can get success. In our country it is different."

The thought is echoed by an Afghan man I met at the ceremony.

"Fairness is basically treating people as equal and respecting their rights, respecting their freedoms and abiding by the laws," he tells me.

Let's accept that the people in this Ealing library are hardly representative. They have invested a lot of time, effort and money - more than £800 apiece - into becoming British citizens.

Work ethic

They wouldn't have done that if they thought they'd be treated unfairly in their new country.

Start Quote

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so fairness is. It is essentially subjective ”

End Quote Sir Menzies Campbell Former Lib Dem leader

So we're back to the old problem of defining fairness.

Can ours really be a fair society when social mobility has ground to a halt, when a poor child stands a tiny chance of getting into a top university compared with a rich child, when the gap between the income of bosses and workers has widened massively over recent years?

You might expect to find that this rankles with the poorly-paid immigrants, who clean the offices of the fat cats long before they arrive for work. You might be surprised.

"People who work sometimes don't get as much wages as they should have, while if they sit back on the benefit the bills are paid," says David Forbes, a Jamaican cleaner on a London night bus.

Equality in queuing

"People who come to this country, who know what it's like to work very hard, they actually put the effort in. But people who actually live here, are born here, sometimes are more laid back.

Fair thoughts

We need to be honest about why we care about fairness. Do we care about it for itself - which we should do if we view people as separate holders of dignity and rights?

Or is it because we think fairness will be an effective means to some other end - reducing the deficit, say, or improving the welfare of the worst off?

"Laid back is much more profitable than working sometimes."

So if you are near the bottom of the ladder from a poor country, you are more likely to be cross about the scroungers lower than you, than those higher up the ladder.

At the bottom of it, many would-be immigrants from poorer countries believe British people abide by the rules and treat each other fairly, says former diplomat Robert Cooper.

"They think British people have a strong sense, personally, of fairness. When two or three British people are gathered together they form a queue."

But in richer, more egalitarian countries like Germany or Sweden, he says, Britain is viewed as being one of the more unequal societies in Europe because of the gap between rich and poor and the link between wealth and education.

Demand for big houses

"In a country like Germany nobody thinks of going to a fee paying school," he says.

Hazel Ware, a former mayor of Ealing, is the woman who handed out the certificates at the citizenship ceremony. She loves doing it, but she has her own worries about British fairness.

"If you looked at all our social services, they get exactly the same as we do. Many of them haven't put any money into the country, but they take the rewards," she tells me.

"I don't think people coming into the country should expect us to give them everything that they want all at once. I think they've got to prove that their needs are such that they require these things.

"There are some people who come in and demand big houses. I don't think that's fair on our people."

So this business of foreigners and fairness cuts both ways. They expect fairness from us. We expect them to play the game as well.

Below is a selection of your comments

A small point but an interesting one, "In a country like Germany no one thinks of going to a fee paying school" Not quite true sadly, and indeed there are a reasonable number of Germans being educated at our fee paying schools. One of my German god children has just finished and the last one, born only a month ago has parents who are determined to have her educated here. Generally speaking though that is an apt comment and is the reason why a lot of my German and French friends have more disposable income than me.

Andrew Hayward, London, UK

I'm from Singapore, but prefer the UK for, yes, its general sense of fair play. But besides that, the intellectual and creative vibrancy of the people is also a significant factor. Of course, both have a symbiotic relationship. There is quite the difference between using tradition to excuse thought, and thinking despite the boundaries of tradition. The latter would describe the UK quite well.

Ed, Harlow, Essex

I'd like to know how many languages have their own phrase that is the equivalent of "fair-play"? In my language - Serbo-Croat - we say "fer-pley" and its obvious where it comes from. In my mind it is very strongly associated with English culture. My worry is that the ethos of "fair-play" and what it stands for is disappearing due to changing values. And I can say (being an immigrant myself) that uncontrolled immigration does not help.

Nino, London

I think the former Mayor of Ealing, Hazel Ware, is in danger of mixing up newly arrived immigrants and newly minted British citizens. One can't become a citizen immediately upon entering the UK; one must live and work here and abide by the rules for years - passing through several stages of bureacracy - before being allowed to become British. They've spent years putting in to our system and been permitted to take out relatively less than people who were born here. The people who go through these ceremonies have well and truly earned it.

Michael Stott, London

I think a major problem with the idea of 'fairness' in Britain is that it has turned into a sense of entitlement for some people. Fairness isn't about deserving things simply for the sake of being fair, it's about fairly earning the things you work for the same as everyone else . For example, while I do believe every young adult should have the opportunity to go to college, I think that some people in Britain have forgotten that college should be something that you work towards and earn. Some students feel entitled to go to university but never understand the value of their education and are unwilling to earn it.

Julie, Glasgow, UK

I feel very strongly I think you should pay in to get out, I can not get help as a disabled person with my mortgage but as an immigrant or asylum seeker I get housed and help. And yes basic wage would suit me I can not get a job so much for the Disability Act, then it seems jobs go to incomers instead of residents

Tracey Roberts, Solihull, UK

Quite! Falling outside the radar is Britain's big aims to manifest human rights worldwide at the peril of its purse. Will the world be a better place if every society works the same as ours? At what cost to the environment? Global diversity of society functionality is the key to a successful planet, not a clean sweep of democracy to all. It is brash to assume ours is the system of choice. The view portrayed here is biased based upon the views of newcomers. Managing a country in the new world should encourage 50% of money to be spent on those that are born and live here. This provides an incentive to stay preventing intelligents leaving and the need for allowing the rest of the world adhoc to enter and eat.

Woodpecker, South

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