Immigration is a boon for society, and the EU should be praised for encouraging it

Populist rhetoric is hurting Britain, writes Petros Fassoulas.

If there is one thing that the British tabloid press and populist politicians (and many others besides) get exercised with and enjoy exaggerating about even more than the EU, it's immigration. No less during a time of economic crisis when scapegoats and easy answers are on high demand.

Immigration has been a cause célèbre for the coalition since coming to power. Promises to cut numbers of immigrants, attacking foreign students, even questioning the free movement of people in the EU have been employed to appease and at the same time fuel populist sentiments. It is also used as a stick to attack the UK’s membership of the EU, which is blamed for any perceived or real increase of immigrants. Rhetoric against immigration and the EU alike has been rife recently and it has been further inflamed because Bulgarian and Romanian citizens (whose countries joined the EU in 2007) are to be given access to the British labour market at the end of the year. Senior Conservative Ministers are already creating an atmosphere of speculation around the notion that such a move will produce negative effects.

But as it’s often the case with populist causes and tabloid obsessions the facts are widely ignored. Take the charge that immigrants come here to pillage Britain’s generous welfare system, for example. Figures from an IMF Working Paper collated as recent as 2011 paint an interesting picture. When measuring the gross replacement rates (the ratio of unemployment benefits a worker receives relative to the worker’s last gross earning) in the first year of unemployment across the world, Britain fares remarkably poorly. As one works his way down this table he quickly realises that our welfare system does not look all that generous, does it?



Gross Replacement Rate, year 1 Ranking
Netherlands 0.7 1
Switzerland 0.687 2
Sweden 0.685 3
Portugal 0.65 4
Spain 0.635 5
Norway 0.624 6
Algeria 0.612 7
Taiwan 0.6 8
Ukraine 0.56 9
Italy 0.527 10
Denmark 0.521 11
Russia 0.505 12
Tunisia 0.5 13
Finland 0.494 14
France 0.479 15
Bulgaria 0.473 16
Canada 0.459 17
Romania 0.45 18
Hong Kong 0.41 19
Austria 0.398 20
Belgium 0.373 21
Argentina 0.354 22
Germany 0.353 23
Greece 0.346 24
Azerbaijan 0.338 25
Egypt 0.329 26
Venezuela 0.325 27
Belarus 0.313 28
Israel 0.307 29
Japan 0.289 30
United States 0.275 31
Kyrgyzstan 0.255 32
New Zealand 0.254 33
Latvia 0.253 34
India 0.25 38
Korea, South 0.25 37
Uruguay 0.25 36
Uzbekistan 0.25 35
Ireland 0.238 39
Hungary 0.235 40
Poland 0.226 41
Czech Republic 0.225 42
Australia 0.21 43
Turkey 0.206 44
Albania 0.202 45
United Kingdom 0.189 46
Brazil 0.152 47
Estonia 0.132 48
Lithuania 0.117 49
Chile 0.115 50
Georgia 0.09 51


It is hard to imagine that the hoards of Romanians and Bulgarians the Tories, UKIP and the right-wing press fear about will ignore pretty much every other country in the EU just to come here. Their narrative would have been a tiny bit more believable if at least the weather in Old Albion was a tad better.

Another popular charge against immigrants is that “they” are a burden on Britain’s welfare system. Again, the facts seem to disagree. A study by Christian Dustman, from the UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, found that in the year to April 2009 workers from Eastern Europe contributed £1.37 in taxes for every £1 of services they used. Native Britons on the other hand contributed just 80 pence for every pound of services they consumed. So, far from being a burden to our welfare system, immigrant workers make a considerable contribution to it.

What about the issue of unemployment and the way immigration impacts upon it?  Rhetoric tends to focus, especially during periods of economic contraction, on how immigrants force native Britons off the job market. But that is not necessarily the case, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research analysed the impact of immigration on the UK labour market using National Insurance registrations by foreign nationals and concluded that “there is no association between migrant inflows and claimant unemployment”. Furthermore, the NIESR tested for “whether the impact of migration on unemployment varies according to the state of the economic cycle and found no evidence of a greater negative impact during periods of low growth or the recent recession”. 

Apart from ignoring the facts and being based on scaremongering and scapegoating, the current rhetoric on immigration and the free movement of people in the EU gives the impression of a nation ready to raise the drawbridge and close itself off from the rest of the world. As a result it strands talented students and skilled labour overseas. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, warned that it is “making it difficult for universities and the City to attract talent from abroad”. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, went even further when she said, among other things, that the flurry of recent statements by senior ministers calling for a crackdown on "bogus students" had given the impression that overseas students were no longer welcome and was driving them towards competitor countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.

The Guardian newspaper quoted a study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which found that “overseas students are estimated to bring £8bn a year into the economy, a figure projected to rise to £16.8bn by 2025, according to a study”. Not a negligible sum, and one that the government’s rhetoric and policies risk jeopardising.

Immigration is neither a burden on our welfare system nor a threat to the domestic workforce, certainly not in the scale implied by certain politicians and newspapers. On the contrary, immigrants, who often take up job natives do not desire (the social care sector being a prime example) make a significant contribution to the economy (by spending on goods and services in this country and contributing to national GDP), the taxation and welfare system, the talent pool available in the labour market and last but not least the cultural wealth of Britain. Instead of demonising them we should be celebrating the role they play in this country.


Removed a paragraph incorrectly implying other countries had not yet opened their labour markets up to Romania and Bulgaria.

Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.