According to the 2011 census, Bognor Regis just over 10% of the town’s 24,000 residents come from the so-called accession countries of the European Union, with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia accounting for by far the largest number. The town hall says that in several areas of Bognor more than 25% of the residents now speak an eastern European language as their first.
“I don’t believe they come for the benefits, not for a minute,” said Robert, 50, a nurse married to a Pole – also a nurse – “We need them; I have a lot of Polish and Lithuanian colleagues and I don’t know how we’d do without them. Plus, it’s a crap benefit system anyway, even for us. I was ill for three months and got no help at all with the mortgage; my wife worked overtime to get us through. She’s never claimed, and never would. It’s really not benefits that brings people here.”
Toms Vimers, 25, a Latvian logistics team operator, said he “never thought once” about benefits when he was planning his move five years ago, and that even now, apart from the £80 child benefit that “everyone gets”, he did not fully understand the system. “Maybe there are things I should be getting,” he said. “I don’t know. No idea.”
Krzysztof Kaplanski, 26, an HGV driver, said he needed all the money he could get to help him pay off the 20 years remaining on his mortgage, but he was not claiming any kind of benefit or tax credit. “I don’t know who they are, all these east European people the government says are doing this,” he said. “My sister is a nurse here, she gets child benefit but that’s all. We come to make a better life for ourselves; how is living on benefits a better life?
Natalia Totoriene, 37, the deputy manager of a betting shop, said I work full time; I have three kids. But nobody I know came here for benefits and I don’t think not getting them will stop anyone coming. Maybe one or two. There’s always someone. But I know many, many more British people who live on benefits than east Europeans.” The couple, who have a home and mortgage, receive child benefit and a disability allowance for their eldest son, who is partially deaf, as well as subsidised childcare that allows Natalia to work full time. “The real benefit for us here is the better care our son gets,” Totoriene said. “He has been in a special school, he gets individual classroom support, free hearing aids. But we both work and we pay our taxes. We’re not getting anything we shouldn’t.”
Elezi has been working in the supermarket for three years. Before that, when she arrived in 2008, she did – like almost all newcomers – agency work, in food processing, warehouses, factories, contract cleaning. “I came here to work,” she said. “Before I came, I didn’t even know you could get benefits here. Yes, now we have tax credits and child benefit, maybe £100 a week, but we spend the money on our son, and we save some, for his education.”
Toyubur Rahman, Bognor’s town centre manager, “The people who come here, live here, work here, settle here, whose children go to school here, are part of our modern identity…Our problem street drinkers are not east Europeans. They’re here because there are jobs for them; because they do them well, and at a good rate.