Labour and the Lib Dems fail to challenge the myth of "benefit tourism"

It was left to EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor to point out that "the British public has not been told all the truth".

If you're looking for a liberal critique of David Cameron's plan to crack down on "benefit tourism" by restricting payments to new migrants, don't look to any of the main parties. The Lib Dems have welcomed the proposals as "sensible and reasonable", while Labour is busy arguing that it came up with the idea first. Yvette Cooper said this morning: "After Labour proposed this change in March, the government said it was all fine and nothing needed to change. Yet now, rather than following a coherent plan, they are flailing around." Neither party challenged the premise on which Cameron's intervention was based.

With the other main voice in the debate, Nigel Farage, complaining that the UK is "still being far too generous", it was left to EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor to provide a dose of reality. As he told the Today programme, "The point is that the British public has not been told all the truth." The truth being that "benefit tourism" is almost entirely a myth. As a recent EU study noted, "the majority of mobile EU citizens move to another Member State to work" and benefit tourism is neither "widespread nor systematic". Another truth rarely mentioned by any party is that migrants contribute far more in taxes than they receive in benefits and services, and benefit the economy as a result. 

An OECD study earlier this year showed that they make a net contribution of 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3bn to the UK, since they are younger and more economically active than the population in general. In addition, the DWP's own research 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.

It's for these reasons, among others, that, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has shown, we will need more, not fewer immigrants, if we are to cope with the challenge of an ageing population and the resultant increase in the national debt. Should Britain maintain net migration of around 140,000 a year (a level significantly higher than the government's target of 'tens of thousands'), debt will rise to 99 per cent of GDP by 2062-63. But should it reduce net migration to zero, debt will surge to 174 per cent. As the OBR concluded, "[There is] clear evidence that, since migrants tend to be more concentrated in the working-age group relatively to the rest of the population, immigration has a positive effect on the public sector’s debt…higher levels of net inward migration are projected to reduce public sector net debt as a share of GDP over the long term relative to the levels it would otherwise reach."

One might expect a fiscal conservative like Cameron to act on such advice but, as so often in recent times, the PM is determined to put politics before policy. By refusing to challenge the terms on which the debate is conducted, Labour and the Lib Dems are doing the same.

David Cameron talks to UK Border Agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow Terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.