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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.