If the Scottish government really does see immigration at the heart of its vision for independence, then why doesn’t it do something about east Europeans sleeping rough in Edinburgh?
Last summer, we discovered that a young Polish man had taken up residence in one of the unused underground cellars in the external basement area of our Georgian tenement in the West End.
Often when entering the stairway, I could look down and see his bedding, tins of soup and even a bottle of tomato sauce. I went down and had a chat with him and he assured me that this was a purely temporary measure while he looked for work.
Importantly, he wasn’t doing any harm and, as long as he didn’t cause a problem, it felt wrong to complain. I chatted to neighbours in the building and we decided to ignore him. Besides, he would surely be gone before winter set in and the matter would resolve itself.
Alas, word clearly spread and it hasn’t taken long for the cellar to be inhabited by other east European migrants looking for a roof over their heads. A few weeks ago tell-tale fag ends appeared scattered around and, on closer examination, sleeping material was again visible.
In a reminder of the Alan Bennett book/play/film The Lady in the Van, where a homeless woman, Mary Shepherd, spent 15 years living at the bottom of the writer’s garden in North London, there were bag men in the basement.
I pondered the problem for a few days and asked friends what they thought should be done.
Helpfully, one passed on the name of the “community policeman” and suggested maybe he could help although the existence of such a beat bobby, in these days of rationalisation, was news to me.
Apparently, there are eight of these police officers in Edinburgh and their job is to resolve the many issues which arise from city centre living. Homelessness is near the top of the list so I emailed him although I didn’t expect much of a reply.
“While I hesitate to raise this,” I wrote, “allowing this to continue may be unwise”.
Much to my surprise, his reply within a few hours was extremely positive. He had already checked the cellar, seen the bedding and would return during his nightshift in a few days’ time when he was more likely to be able to confront our visitors.
He suggested that he should take a gentle approach and offer “room service”.
Yesterday, he reported that he found two Slovakian men sleeping in the cellar when he checked at five o’clock in the morning. They were using one cellar as a bedroom and another one as a toilet which made us feel that we had taken the right decision.
The men spoke very good English and, happily, they agreed to “move on” without any fuss taking their belongings with them.
While our friendly community bobby says he will continue to check the cellars during his rounds, it is likely that they will have found another billet nearby perhaps in the grounds of a local church where, apparently, many other homeless east Europeans spend the night.
It turns out that Edinburgh city centre is the rough sleeping capital of Scotland. According to the last published statistics, there are up to 400 homeless persons looking for shelter on any given night.
Since the so-called A8 joined the European Union in 2004 — the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia —the foreign population in Scotland has doubled to around 400,000.
The number in Edinburgh is nearing 100,000.
In the White Paper published by the then First Minister Alex Salmond in the weeks leading up to the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, the SNP used immigration as a major lever towards creating a better Scotland.
They proposed an Australian-style points system to allow people with skills and ambition to settle more easily. Importantly, this was a policy which was necessary to expand our economy and build a greater, more diverse, country.
The idea prompted unionist politicians to warn that there would need to be border patrols between Scotland and England where, of course, immigration is often a vexed issue.
More recently, during the European refugee crisis, David Cameron was severely criticised by the SNP when the Prime Minster lamely proposed that the UK could accept 20,000 migrants over five years.
The Scottish Government’s attitude to immigration is to be applauded. Scotland does indeed have a rapidly ageing population which will need to be supported by hard working individuals.
Our future depends on growing our numbers so that more people can contribute to the nation’s wellbeing.
But surely we don’t have to be independent to enact these measures. Our government already has the power to make it happen.
Why then have I had Slovaks sleeping in my cellar?