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.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).