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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.