Cameron is trying to appease the unappeasable on immigration

By banning migrants from claiming benefits for three months, the PM simply reinforces the myth that immigration is an ill.

In a rather desperate attempt to demonstrate that he's taking "tough" action on immigration, David Cameron has rushed forward a ban on migrants claiming out-of-work benefits for three months after their arrival to 1 January, the date when the transitional controls on Romanians and and Bulgarians expire. 

He said: 

The hard-working British public are rightly concerned that migrants do not come here to exploit our public services and our benefits system.
As part of our long-term plan for the economy, we are taking direct action to fix the welfare and immigration systems so we end the 'something for nothing culture' and deliver for people who play by the rules.
Accelerating the start of these new restrictions will make the UK a less attractive place for EU migrants who want to come here and try to live off the state. I want to send the clear message that while Britain is very much open for business, we will not welcome people who don’t want to contribute.
Based on these words, voters might reasonably assume that "benefit tourism" is one of the biggest problems facing the UK. But, of course, the reverse is the case. 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". 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.
But while blogs like this one and economists like Jonathan Portes repeatedly make this point, don't expect any of the main parties to do so. Labour's response to Cameron's announcement can be summed up as "it was our idea first!" Here's Yvette Cooper's statement: 

Labour called for these benefit restrictions nine months ago. Yet David Cameron has left it until the very last minute to squeeze this change in.

Why is the Government leaving everything until the last minute and operating in such a chaotic way? Three weeks ago Theresa May told Parliament she couldn't restrict benefits in time, now the Prime Minister says they can. They wouldn’t be on the run from angry Conservative backbenchers if they’d listened to us nine months ago.

But while Cooper might be wrong to perpetuate the myth of benefit tourism, she is certainly right to note that Cameron is "on the run" from his recalcitrant MPs. Nearly 80 Tory backbenchers (almost enough to deprive the coalition of its majority) have signed an amendment ordering the government to break EU law and extend the labour market restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians for a further five years (with a Commons vote to be held next month). Many of them will nod in agreement with Nigel Farage when he declares: "Smoke and mirror policy today by the Govt over Bulgarian & Romanian migrants, all to try shoot UKIP's fox. Without actually saying that."

In offering "tough" new measures on immigration, Cameron is seeking to appease the unappeasable. Why, his MPs and others will ask, should migrants only be barred from claiming benefits for three months? And if the PM can rewrite the rules to stop newcomers receiving welfare, why he can't he rewrite them to stop them taking jobs? (Many on the right appear to simultaneously believe that immigrants come to sponge off the state and that they're taking 'all the jobs'.) As Tory rebel David Ruffley said in response: "It's not enough to choke off any abuse of benefits because many want to come here to work.

"The minimum wage in Romania is £1 and, for perfectly rational economic reasons, they want to come here to work for £6 an hour. We were told 13,000 Poles were coming under the Labour government and it turned out to be 500,000, putting pressure on public services."

Rather than challenging those who believe that immigration is always and everywhere an ill, Cameron is reinforcing the view that we should do all we can to deter foreigners from coming to these shores. Again, as any economist will tell you, the reverse is true. There is no evidence that migrants take jobs that would have otherwise gone to domestic workers (studies suggest that immigration increases labour demand as well as supply), or that they depress average wages. But there is much evidence that they are net contributors to the economy, paying far more in taxes than they receive in benefits and services. An OECD report last month, for instance, found 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.

It's for these reasons 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. The irony is that, by allowing UKIP to claim yet another political victory, he isn't even succeeding in these debased terms.

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration in Ipswich on March 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.