Capping benefits for migrants could serve to drive down wages for all

Forcing migrants into whatever work's going will render exploitation a breeze.

From an economic point of view, it's difficult to assess David Cameron's proposal to limit the amount of social support migrants from the EU can receive. Migration is a nearly unqualified positive to a nation's economy, but those positives generally rely on the point that migrants are likely to be in work and a net contributor to the public purse – more likely, in fact, than native Britons. But the premise of the new policy is that it doesn't affect those "good" migrants. So what to think of it?

Firstly, the background. Immigration is a boon to society, and immigration from the EU is no different. A study by UCL's Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration finds that in 2008/9, workers from Eastern Europe contributed £1.37 in taxes for every £1 of services they used, while native Britons contributed 80p to the pound. Migrants represent about 13 per cent of all workers but only 7 per cent of all benefit claimants. Liberalising immigration worldwide could result in a 116 per cent increase in wages overnight.

But arguments in favour of Britain alone opening its borders tend to focus on one very specific benefit of migration. Almost by definition, the foreigners who arrive on our shores seeking work are among the most motivated, richest, and capable members of their nations; as a result, they tend to be a net bonus to the British economy. (Even if you control for characteristics like age, education, children and disability, the UCL study still found that Eastern European migrants were less likely to claim benefits).

But David Cameron's plan is to ban EU nationals "from claiming most benefits after six months in the UK unless they can prove they have been continuously looking for work over that period", according to the Guardian's Patrick Wintour. Since the vast majority of migrants don't claim benefits, and the advantage of migration is frequently attributed to the fact that migrants are more frequently in work, how could this backfire?

On the face of it, it couldn't, because it's largely an empty policy. Cracking down on issues which have a disproportionate public profile is the bread-and-butter of immigration politics. In this way, Cameron's idea follows in the tradition of Ed Miliband's requirement that public sector workers speak English (they overwhelmingly do, as do 99.73 per cent of people living in England and Wales) and Gordon Brown's decision to "suspend" low skilled migration in 2008 despite the fact that it had been practically suspended since 2004. A lot of fuss over something which "fixes" problems which people think they have about immigration.

But there will be effects nonetheless. Because while few migrants claim state aid, the social safety net has an effect on people in work as well. The harsher life is for an unemployed person, the more power employers have over employees. A crucial part of economic life is the ability to tell your employer to go shove it if they treat you badly, and go and find a better job. That keeps the employer/employee relationship more equitable than it might otherwise be, and ensures better treatment for all – even those who would never have the courage to walk out themselves.

There is some evidence that, at the lower levels of pay, migration does drive wages down. The best response to that is through redistribution, rather than a cap; if migration grows the economy by more than it drives wages down, then a redistributionist state can make everyone better off. But Cameron's cap will serve, at the margin, to drive wages for migrants lower still, by forcing them to take jobs at conditions that native workers, without the pressure of starvation after six months, might not do. And since everyone is competing for the same jobs, that will push wages for native workers lower too.

The macroeconomy of that policy might still end up being a positive, because exploitation of labourers is good for the bottom line. But it doesn't seem like the sort of economy which Cameron wants to run.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle