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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.