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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.

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

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.