Author Archives: Michal Siewniak

What the week of Christian unity can offer

I don’t know why, but I always had a “soft spot” for diversity. When I was growing up in Poland in the 1990’s, due to years of communism and oppression, Poland and Lublin weren’t the most diverse places on earth, however even then, I noticed signs and opportunities to build dialogue with minority groups and organisations.

As a member of the Focolare Movement, one of my earliest recollections of taking an active part in an event, which was celebrating diversity, was the Week of Christian Unity. I found it absolutely fascinating when, every January, I had a real privilege to visit different places of workshops and “utilise” religion as a platform for a common good. Very often, a simple cup of tea, “corridor conversation” with no “strings attached” helped me to enrich my own “faith journey” and “cemented” my beliefs.

Since coming to the UK, this experience has in many ways intensified. Although I live in a relatively small town in Hertfordshire, I am surrounded by Christian Churches of different traditions; there are Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics, all doing their part to build a more tolerant and cohesive community.

Why is it important? This week marks The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, during which Christians around the world participate in various initiatives to build on and enhance the Christian unity. Moreover, this week encourages all Christians to move toward the fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper “that they all may be one.” 

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Being a REAL “Community Champion” and the Order of the British Empire

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  • To award or not to award?
  • Is the Queen’s New Year’s honours list “fit for purpose”?
  • Is it too archaic?
  • Does it reflect well on the real achievements of our “Community Champions”?

I must admit that I don’t usually pay too much attention to the Queen’s New Year’s honours list. This year was a bit different mainly because a former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was chosen by the Queen for the knighthood. Not surprisingly, in a couple of days, more than 500,000 people have signed the petition to revoke his knighthood. Some of these calls were driven by families, whose members lost their loved ones during the war in Iraq.

In political terms, Mr Blair has been a very successful politician. He was a Prime Minister, undoubtedly one of the hardest jobs in the land, for 10 years (1997-2007). In a way, I should be grateful to Tony Blair as it was he who allowed Poles and other Eastern European nationals to come to Britain since the largest enlargement of the EU in 2004.

However, in my view he lost political integrity and credibility when he decided to support the invasion of Iraq. Since leaving the office, he has travelled globally to give talks on a wide range of issues. I found it staggering that he was supposed to be giving a speech on how to feed the poor in Sweden in 2015. This was dropped for a simple reason; Mr Blair’s fees were too high (£330,000!).

In my opinion, I am not sure whether people who are paid to do a particular job, even if they do it very well, should be receiving a knighthood. For me an example of someone who deserves recognition is Marcus Rashford, who didn’t get an MBE for his fantastic football skills but for  additional (and exceptional!) work that he has been doing to support vulnerable children.

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Desmond Tutu: 90 years of life – life to the full, despite many struggles and challenges

Desmond Tutu, a tiny giant as many people used to call him, passed away today. I always found him quite an interesting church and public figure. I’ve listened to a number of his interviews. He went through a lot, however he never lost a genuine desire to build “common good”. He was funny, intelligent, always with a big smile on his face. In 1984, he received a Nobel Prize. He was a fighter with a big and open heart. However, above all Desmond Tutu was a Man of Peace and a Man of God.

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International Migrants Day

In no particular order, I am proud to call myself:

  • Immigrant
  • Migrant
  • Polish
  • European national
  • Global citizen
  • Citizen of the world
  • Resident of Welwyn Garden City

Each year, on the 18th December, we celebrate the International Migrants Day. A day like many others. However, it is a day which gives us an opportunity to recognise our contribution, reflect on our achievements and celebrate our uniqueness.

The International Migrants Day is a day when we can be truly proud of our own heritage, culture, upbringing, religious or ethnic background. Our faith affiliation, colour of our skin or country of our origin are only part of our story. It is our personal experiences and journey through life, which can help us to become better human beings, and which make us who we are.

We all “move around” for a number of different reasons; to better our lives, seek opportunities to work or study, or flee war of prosecution. We enhance our communities. We enrich our neighbourhoods. Life is at times challenging, hard and demanding. However, it has also plenty of happy and fulfilling moments. I believe that migration is strongly embedded in our DNA. Let’s not forget that we all have layers of identify and being a migrant is only one of them.

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Channel crossings and the Borders and Nationality Bill

In recent weeks, the UK government has been quite “busy” dealing with a number of national scandals. It is possible that many of us might have forgotten that at the moment, MPs are debating the Borders and Nationality Bill, which has previously received a lot of media and political attention.

In the last few days, I found a very interesting report produced by the Refugee Council. The latest official statistics show that in the year ending June 2021, 37,235 people applied for asylum in the UK, 4% decrease on the previous year. What has changed significantly is the method of traveling; from freight transit to Channel boat crossing.

So, what are the key findings of the report?

  • 70% of the total people number of people arriving to the UK via small boats, from January 2020 to May 2020, 12,195 people in total, came only from 5 countries of origin: Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam
  • Iranian nationals accounted for 26% of all arrivals
  • On average, 98% of people who arrive after crossing the channel in a small boat make a claim for asylum
  • Over 91% of the total small boat arrivals (11,123 people) came from just ten countries of origin including Afghanistan, the 7th highest nationality of all small boat arrivals.
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A Polish perspective – “positive patriotism” abroad

There are times when the Polish community particularly proud of its background and heritage. There are days when our nationality and origin are our great assets. Saturday, 27 November, was just such a day. It was ugly, rainy and windy. Many of us probably would not have left the house. However, despite the typical winter weather, the Polish Saturday School in Welwyn Garden City once again showed that it is the “force for good”, which brings a positive social change in Welwyn Hatfield.

Thanks to a grant from the Hertfordshire Community Foundation, the school, its teachers and volunteers organised an event promoting public health. In all fairness, it was one of many projects organised by the school. Moreover, the school organised possibly bigger initiatives, however the one in November was also quite special.

It was the Polish Saturday School that secured funding for a health and wellbeing project; a total of £2,500. The obtained grant helped the Polish School to become the driving force behind the whole event. Our guests and attendees, including the Mayor of Welwyn Hatfield and the Leader of the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, had an opportunity to learn, listen and network with 15 organisations from many areas across Hertfordshire as well as many Polish residents.

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Climate change and the real cost of travelling

Our planet needs our immediate attention. It is clear, at least to me, that there aren’t easy answers to some of the global environmental challenges.

Will actions of one individual make any difference? How can I change or improve the way I live my life to protect the planet? We have “mountains to climb” so why bother? I can decide to eat less meat, to recycle more or use other means of traveling.

The latter is an actual problem, especially when you live abroad. It would be great to travel to continental Europe by train, however it is almost impossible if you have a full or even part-time job with limited annual leave.

What about the cost? I find it quite staggering that it is still so much cheaper to fly than to travel by train. The return trip by train from London to Brussels was approximately £100 more expensive than a return trip by plane. This surely can’t be right, can it?

I am certain that many of us realise the severity of the current situation. Although the most recent climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow reached much needed compromise in a number of key areas, there is still some way to go. I just hope that one day, sooner rather than later, the cost of traveling by train will be made much more affordable.

P.S: I must admit that I lost a lot of faith in our leading politicians, who decided to fly to Scotland in private jets rather than travel like “ordinary’ members of the public. President Biden brought with him 22 cars. Why? What for? Mr Johnson returned to London by private plane. He was rushing to attend a dinner, which was apparently organised by a leading climate change sceptic. Are they leading by example? I don’t think so.

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UK Parliament Week and the Polish Saturday School in Welwyn Garden City

  • I did wonder whether I should bother
  • I did wonder, whether inspiring young people to learn and find out more about the role of the Parliament, makes sense
  • I did wonder whether I should simply “drop” my passion for the civic agenda and look for another “hobby”

The most recent events in the Houses of Parliament “wobbled” my desire to do my little part and absolute commitment to enhancing the democratic process. Another scandal, another U-turn, another opportunistic attempt from the government to change the rules. “One rule for us, one for them”, we heard a lot this week.

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Hope, prejudice and the power of change

  • How many times did I, you or anyone you know, has “written someone off”?
  • How many times, before someone spoke, we already ”knew” the other person?
  • How often do we label or stigmatise other humans?

A few days ago, I was quite lucky to meet someone, still very young, whose journey can be an inspiration to many of us:

  • Lost her mother at the age of 14
  • Didn’t finish school
  • Was kicked out from her house
  • Lost contact, for two years, with her siblings

More importantly, Jamala Osman lost a sense of belonging and a purpose in life. Many would say; “there is no way back”, her life …

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An encounter with a refugee from Afghanistan

The refugee crisis, ways in which people in often desperate need of help, should be supported, still hugely divides politicians, decision makers, families and our communities.

  • “Welcome or not welcome”?
  • If welcome, how many?
  • Support legitimate governments in war torn countries?
  • Send aid? Where to?
  • Support directly organisations such as British Red Cross?

Endless questions…There is not one easy answer. There is not one solution to solve this complex and global issue. People have always migrated. People will continue to “move around” for a wide range of reasons. Some of us have a choice of going back to our native countries, however many individuals have absolutely no choice. That choice was often taken away from them without their will. The decision to flee was “imposed” on them. Many refugees that I met since I arrived in the UK, often, didn’t want to leave their homes.

In the last week or so, I had another opportunity to meet a refugee, this time from Afghanistan. It is one thing to read a story in the paper or watch a bit of “refugee news” on TV; it really is very different when we encounter someone who had to, often overnight, leave absolutely everything.

Imagine this: it is hard, however you have a job, you work and you are able to support your family. Then, due to “external factors”; sudden change of circumstances, in order to remain safe and alive, you have to flee. You are then “parachuted” into another country, UK in this case. You are moved around; from Birmingham, Croydon, to Hertfordshire. You are given very little support. You have to find your way around a very inhumane and complex system. You might be moved again as your accommodation was given to you on a temporary basis. You have nothing; not even a buggy to move your child around while you are trying to find the best way to stay “sane”. You are tired, confused, bewildered. Endless emails, confused messages; an absolute nightmare. But, you still smile…How? I have no idea. A simple, often emotional conversation, with a real person can hugely change our perceptions on how to support refugees.

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The impact of staff shortages on the UK economy

I like my Sunday routine. I am not a coffee drinker, however I enjoy my morning walk to Welwyn Garden City Town Centre and getting my favourite vanilla latte.

In the last couple of weeks, I have noticed that one of my local coffee shops is opening later than usual. I thought that it might be a good idea to ask what causes this late opening. I was told that unfortunately; they are short staffed. This particular outlet recruited two new individuals, however one of them, I was told, resigned very quickly.

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What next for the UK HGV drivers’ industry?

The madness continues. Some politicians, including my own MP, Grant Shapps, said that Brexit is not to blame for the lorry driver crisis. Moreover, Mr Shapps said that Brexit helped to “provide a solution” to the crisis. Am I crazy or is he living on a different planet?

In the last couple of days, the Road Haulage Association said that what our Transport Minister perceives as a “success” is in actual fact quite the opposite, “illogical”. I would go further that that; it is incomprehensible. Is Mr Shapps living in some sort of denial?

The Office for National Statistics claims that …

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“Poverty of trust”

A very good friend of mine from Croatia (thank you, Hrvoje!) has recently invited me to an international online meeting, attended by 40 + different business leaders from around the world. The main theme for the session was the importance of building and strengthening the trust. The meeting, and in particular some of the expressions used, was quite revealing.

Whilst going through the process of being approved as a candidate in the next local elections, I had an opportunity to spend one Saturday morning with some of my colleagues, who are very experienced campaigners.

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Is there a role and purpose for coalition governments in the UK?

A very good friend of mine has emailed me recently to say that that he has joined the SNP. He is a supporter of an independent Scotland. He posed a very interesting questions, which I felt, is worth exploring a bit more. The members of the SNP were asked to vote whether to support a collaborative agreement with the Green Party. As we know, the agreement would create an overall majority for independence in the Scottish Parliament, push the climate debate and emphasise the importance of close cooperation with our partners in Europe.

It was really interesting to read that the SNP and the Greens decided to call it a cooperation agreement. In my view, there are very few differences and this was a tactical rather than a political move. We all know that both parties have a lot in common (referendum, green policies, attitude towards immigration), however there are also some differences. In Scotland, this arrangement might secure the second independence referendum, as the opposition will be out numbered. However, some would argue that this is not necessarily the best formula for “political harmony” as the country will be still divided into 2 camps.

As a Polish national, I am used to coalitions. I was growing up in Poland in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and I don’t remember a government formed by one party. This has changed only recently. Personally, I like coalitions. They bring different parties together, different solutions, ideas and policies to address some of the local and national issues. They “force” politicians to listen, compromise and dialogue. Coalitions are often complex political arrangement, which require patience and resilience.

When the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservative Party (which I supported), loads of people were convinced that the government wouldn’t last longer than 18 months. They did last 5, however the Liberal Democrats paid a huge price. With almost 60 MP’s between 2010-2015, the party ended up having less than 10 MP’s after the 2015 elections. So I do understand people who are sceptical about coalitions. I can also see coalitions usually favour bigger parties.

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Youth provision, children and their “freedoms”

The contrast was striking. It was 12:30am in the morning. Croatia is really hot over the summer and therefore a late night walk is usually a relief. It was midnight and the outdoor sport courts were full of children. Kids were playing (with some parental supervision) beach volleyball, football and basketball. Of course, I did join in! Some would say that this leaving children out so late in the night is rather naive. So was it irresponsible parenting? Personally, I don’t think so.

In Britain, I often feel that we lost the ability …

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COVID, holidays and vaccine hesitancy within Eastern European communities

If someone told me a few years ago that any other issue will divide our communities as much as Brexit did after the EU referendum, I would not have believed.

This year, I was lucky enough to travel over the summer holidays. A lot of people like me, who live abroad, are often left with very little choice. COVID restrictions, stress around planning and cost of tests is putting many people off, however there are not many alternatives if we want to see our loved ones.

The health pandemic was a central part of many of my conversations in Poland and Croatia. Although most of my friends had at least one dose of the vaccine, what are the reasons for “vaccine hesitancy” within the Polish and other ethnic minority communities?

The most recent data from the Hertfordshire County Council Public Health team shows that 69% of any other white backgrounds of residents living in the county received at least one dose of the vaccine. This is significantly lower than e.g. white British individuals (around 90%). There is still some work that needs to be done to address the issue of relatively low levels of the vaccine roll-out within minority ethnic groups.

It is also clear that there are many reasons why some people, also from my community, are hesitant towards the vaccination programme. Social media plays a big part in shaping people’s views on whether to have the vaccine or not. Targeted online campaigns, believing only in one source of information, being fed up with listening to “experts” often means that it is not easy to change people’s “fixed mind-sets”. For those living in the UK, occasional language barriers could be some of the motives of vaccine resistance.

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Remembering Srebrenica

Imagine, just for a moment, that you don’t eat for a month.

Imagine that for months, if you are lucky, you have one “meal” a day; meal meaning a watery soup.

Imagine that when or if you are lucky enough to board the plane, you have no idea where and when you will land.

Imagine that you have no choice, none whatsoever.

Imagine that you are taken, against your will, to a concentration camp, without knowing whether you will walk free again.

Imagine that you are unable, for months, to contact your loved ones.

Imagine that if you are lucky to survive, your traumatic experience lives with you forever.

Imagine that you have NO choice or freedom.

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Building platform for civic activism with youngest residents

It is wonderful that the “civic tradition” of children from the Polish Saturday School in Welwyn Garden City continues!

Last weekend, a group of children and a few members of staff visited the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. Children had another opportunity to visit the Council Chamber, meet the Leader of the Council, newly elected Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Welwyn Hatfield.

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United with Belarus

I come originally from the South-East part of Poland. I was 10 when the Berlin Wall collapsed and I must admit that I didn’t grasp the importance of these historical events, for my native country as well as the whole of Europe. I discovered its significance later on.

In the last couple of weeks, I was reflecting on the journey of each one of the countries behind the “Iron Curtain”. Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic – they all did well and it is clear that a massive democratic transformation served them and their residents well.

However, there is one country, also a former Soviet Union republic, which has been struggling since 1990’s and which brought international attention for all the wrong reasons. Plane hijacked, which simply equals an act of terrorism, imprisonment of opposition leaders or ordinary members of the public, often as young as 14-15 year olds, lack of free speech, economical progress and recovery or inability to peaceful demonstrations; the list goes on. While completing my Master’s Degree in History, I had an opportunity to meet many people from Belarus, who were studying in my home town, Lublin. I often wonder in these situations whether there is anything I should be doing to help. But what, and more importantly how could I do that?

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The Windrush scandal – a sign of things to come for EU citizens?

For me personally, a huge advantage of living in the UK is the fact that I’ve had so many opportunities to meet so amazing (and inspiring) people, who migrated to Britain from all corners of the world. Many of them I call friends.

Due to the pandemic, I feel that we often miss some important stories. This week, my eye caught a report about the Home Office’s appalling failure to protect and support the victims of the Windrush scandal.

I wonder whether statistics (see below) show the inefficiency of the Home Office or whether they clearly demonstrate an implementation of hostile …

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What next for UK politics?

Oh boy, there is a never dull day in British politics!

It is very true that a week in politics can be actually quite long and eventful. The dust hasn’t settled yet and so much has already happened since last week’s elections. It was incredibly interesting to see how people across the country voted last week and how the election result might impact the future of the UK.

I am not a famous political strategist, however it is true that the political landscape in the UK is changing, that’s for sure. The “Red Wall” collapsed. The by-elections in Hartlepool showed that the Labour Party can’t automatically count on votes from the working class people. Would it be fair to say that it is now the middle-class in bigger cities, which “saved” the Labour Party from a total disaster (London, Liverpool, Manchester). Is it also true that the Labour Party has lost its “political identity”?

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Local elections and the “Festival of Local Democracy”

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Well…I might be a bit weird, however I am really excited about tomorrow! Why? It is an election day, which gives us ALL another wonderful opportunity to shape our local communities by electing District and County Councillors. There are also significant elections in Scotland, to the Scottish Parliament and in Wales, to the Welsh Assembly. Tomorrow will be a busy day for voters and quite a nerve-wracking day for all the candidates!

We often don’t realise but it is very true that even the smallest elections to the parish council affect the way we live our lives.

I often wonder what makes us vote, particularly in the local elections? is it because we want to see a real change in our neighbourhoods? Is it because we want to positively influence the so called “status quo”? Or is it simply because we simply like a particular candidate?

Is our voting based on our political alliances? Would we vote for any candidates of the main political parties in the local elections only because we support their national policies?

Do we vote tactically?

Or do we vote because we passionately believe in democracy and we want to be part of the civic process?

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The Cost of Local Democracy

I often wonder what could be done to reduce the cost of democracy, particularly now when the public finances are stretched to absolute limits and when the national debt is rapidly rising. When I was a serving Councillor, someone who originally comes from Poland, where the political system is different, I often questioned the election cycle in the UK and I never really understood why it is that we need to have elections every year; either to the Local or County Council.

My “election cycle scepticism” was magnified when I was told that it cost annually on average £100,000 to set up and run the local elections in Welwyn Hatfield. I thought that if, for example, the elections were to take place every other year, the taxpayer would save £500,000 in one decade only. It is potentially a lot of additional resources for one Local Authority. This significant amount of money could support a number of projects in our neighbourhoods.

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A simplified, open source guide to UK democracy

I am sure that most readers would agree with me if I said that, often, in order for us all to make a tangible difference in our communities or influence change at a local or national level, we need to be politically educated. As a European national, it seems to me that this has never been more important.

Today, I am delighted to be able to share with you a fantastic Open Source Election Guide, which was produced by the New Europeans UK and POMOC (Polish Migrants Organise for Change) amongst other great partners working in the field.

Why is it so important? It is important because this open source provides a very informative democratic tool, which, in a simple language, explains the way in which the UK’s democratic system works. However, crucially and most importantly, it tells us why voting is so important! Although the democratic system in the UK is quite complex, this open source election guide simplifies the whole political process. It is a must read!

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Why so many Poles have already left Britain?

I was delighted to receive an email this week from a good friend of mine, Roger Casale, founder of the New Europeans and also a former Member of the UK Parliament.

Roger emailed to say that one of his colleagues, Peter Conradi, who is Sunday Times Europe’s Editor, was running a story this weekend about the reasons why so many Poles have already left the UK. I was really pleased that I had an opportunity to speak to Peter and that the article itself was published in yesterday’s paper. It was a fascinating conversation, which, probably for the first time, helped me to pause and reflect on the causes of the Polish nationals’ departure from the UK. This trend has already directly affected many of my fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

It is estimated that almost a million Poles lived in the UK before the Brexit vote. Some, mainly anecdotal evidence, suggests that around 200,000 members of the Polish community have now left the UK. It is a significant exodus of Poles, which, in my view, might continue in the future. So what are the reasons why people have left or are leaving?

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VIDEO – European nationals and the importance of the local elections 2021

Local elections 2021, Thursday, 6th May

The UK has now left the EU, however did you know that:

  • You can still vote in the local elections as a European citizen?
  • Your vote hugely matters?
  • You can continue shaping the future of the local communities?
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The Home Office and EU Settled Status Scheme

I am sure that most of us, who know, work with or have friends and family members from Europe, heard of so called EU pre-settled or settled status scheme. The scheme is crucial and it ensures that all Europeans living in the UK can continue to receive the same entitlements they had until the transition period ended at the end of December 2020.

The Home Office has published this week (week ending 14th February) the latest data in relation to the EU Settled Status Scheme. It is encouraging to see that such a significant number of EU nationals have already submitted their applications. It is fair to say that overall, the process is relatively simple and straightforward.

The figures show that, up to the end of January 2021: 5.06 million applications were received, 4.68 million applications were processed. Across the UK, 4.57 million applications were received from England, 252,400 applications from Scotland, 83,800 applications from Wales and 81,800 received from Northern Ireland. 2,497,600 (53%) were granted settled status and 2,039,800 (44%) were granted pre-settled status, thus showing more than 4.5 million grants of status.

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What is the future of the farming industry in the UK?

Although I come originally from a city called Lublin, in the South-East part of Poland, as a child, I spent a lot time visiting my cousins and grandparents’ in relatively large village close to a city called Rzeszow. I remember Polish harvest, I remember watching my uncle, my grandmothers’ brother, who used to leave the house very early in the morning and who was coming back home very late; often tired but also happy, as the job enabled him to feel closely connected with nature. 

Looking back, I think that farming has been always strongly rooted in the “working culture” of the Polish nation. Today, the situation has changed as young people move to cities to seek and enhance their life opportunities. I remember how hard everyone had to work to feed their families and earn a decent (?) living. My mum tells me that when she was a child, before going to school, she also had to support her parents with e.g. feeding the cows or cleaning the stable. I also remember visiting my auntie in Italy, who was working on the farm. It really was a hard job. I have it easy these days, don’t I? 

I’ve recently come across a very interesting article published in Emerging Europe about the impact of Brexit on UK farming industry. I often wondered what will happen to some sections of the economy when the transition period ends? It is good news that the UK government has increased to 30,000 the number of visas to seasonal workers, who will be able to come to Britain for up to 6 months. Unfortunately, this is where the good news end. This new ‘visa arrangement’ comes with a heavy price. Each work permit will cost £244, which for many interested individuals might be simply too expensive. What is even more interesting is that citizens from some countries e.g. Turkey or Macedonia will pay less (£55) than seasonal workers from other countries e.g. Romania, Bulgaria or Slovenia. Reason? Some countries are not members of the Council of Europe’s Social Chapter. 

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Time to predict the political future of the UK post-Brexit?

I love sport, football in particular. Although I had an opportunity to serve as a local councillor in Welwyn Hatfield, I occasionally feel that I am a “spectator”, not a “player”, when it comes to my voting rights in the UK. In a way, it is a shame that although I have been living here for almost 16 years, I have always paid taxes, I have always worked and I have not been a “burden”, I have never had a chance to cast my vote in GE or, more importantly, in the EU referendum. When I first visited the Houses of Parliament, I was told that “taxation equals representation”. Really? I don’t think so.
I don’t have any predictable abilities or a magic wand. I am also aware that we have only a few days ago ended the transition period and therefore the “dust has truly settled yet”, however if someone asked me to guess what will happen in the UK in the next 5-10 years, I would say that:

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    Bit of a straw man there Mick given at no point was anyone seeking to force their views on anyone else. Asking someone what their views are is not the same as i...
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    Andrew Appreciate your response. I understand. My view though is your opinion and mine, or Mick's, is as valid as any other. Young middle aged, middle aged, ...
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