How ministers are scaremongering over "benefit tourism"

Just 7 per cent of foreign born nationals claim working age benefits, compared to 17 per cent of UK nationals.

Ahead of the end of transitional controls on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals at the end of this year, the government is preparing a crackdown on so-called "benefit tourism". Willliam Hague said yesterday that he wanted to end the "artificial, perverse incentives" to come to the UK and the BBC reports today that ministers will shortly announce "across the board" curbs. Given the political and media attention devoted to the issue, one might assume that almost no immigrant moves to the UK but to claim benefits. As so often, however, the data tells a different story. 

The DWP published research on the subject last year (the first time a government has done so) and found that those born abroad were significantly less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals. Of the 5.5 million people claiming working age benefits in February 2011, just 371,000 (6.4 per cent) were foreign nationals when they first arrived in the UK. That means only 6.6 per cent of those born abroad were receiving benefits, compared to 16.6 per cent of UK nationals. In addition, a random sample of 9,000 from the 371,000, only including those from outside the European Economic Area, found that 98 per cent had an immigration status consistent with claiming benefits legitimately.

It's important to note that the figures did not tell us the number of foreign nationals claiming benefits, rather they told us the number claiming benefits who were non-UK nationals when they first entered the labour market. But there is, of course, significant crossover between the two. The sample of 9,000 found that 54 per cent had become British citizens since moving to the UK and that a further 29 per cent had been granted indefinite leave to remain.

Significantly, the study offered no evidence of "benefit tourism". As Chris Grayling, the-then employment minister, conceded when it was published in January 2012, "We’ve yet to establish the full picture. It may be that there isn’t a problem right now." In the absence of further research, ministers' preoccupation with the issue has more to do with politics than policy. The media's coverage of the subject creates the false impression that large numbers of migrants are claiming benefits leading to unnecessary public anxiety. As Cameron's spokesman said today, "There's a widespread sense of concern. That's what the government is considering how best to respond to." By cracking down on the perceived problem of "benefit tourism", the government hopes to win over voters hostile towards immigration. But as the figures above suggest, were ministers to inform the public, rather than scare them, there might be less hostility to begin with. 

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration at the Institute for Government. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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