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Peerage and prejudice: why a MigrationWatch representative in the Lords is bad news

David Cameron gives a peerage to Sir Andrew Green of MigrationWatch, which has caused controversy with its use of data, and harsh proposals regarding immigration.

The Prime Minister, for fear of losing more voters to Ukip, is doing everything he can to sound tough on immigration. Moving to the right on this concern is a bad move politically, which I, and many others, have argued won’t work for the Tories in their struggle against Ukip’s rise.

However, ploughing on, David Cameron has today given a peerage to Sir Andrew Green, the founder and chair of MigrationWatch. He will sit in the Lords as a crossbencher, and is one of four figures appointed by Cameron for their “contribution to public life”.

This has caused a mixed reaction, with some – including Nigel Farage and the Times columnist and Tory activist Tim Montgomerie – praising the decision, and others shocked by what they see as the PM’s desperate pandering to Ukip.

MigrationWatch is a think tank founded on the basis that immigration levels in the UK are unacceptably high, which calls for migration to be reduced to the “low tens of thousands”. It has caused controversy in the past with its use of data, and proposals regarding immigration that many view as too harsh.

Here are some reasons why people may feel uncomfortable having a representative of this organisation in the House of Lords, scrutinising policy and influencing legislation:


  • Accused of using dubious data

MigrationWatch is often slammed by its critics for publishing “specious” arguments based on misleading information:

 - A recent example is its report from earlier this year claiming that immigrants have cost UK taxpayers more than £22m a day for 17 years. This conclusion was based on figures from UCL. But academics at the University vociferously disagreed with this conclusion; they said the report was, “based on a serious misinterpretation of the methodology we have used in our work, which leads to fundamental mistakes that invalidate their calculations”.

 - Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, successfully complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) this year that articles about the tax paid by Eastern European migrants in the Telegraph and Mail based on MigrationWatch statistics were inaccurate. Both papers amended their articles.

 - An older example is its 2007 paper on the impact of immigration per head, stating that immigration merely benefited the population by 4p per week: the equivalent of “a Mars Bar a month”. This was based on incorrect data, and was therefore an underestimation of the economic benefit of immigration. It amended the paper, but stood by “the thrust” of its conclusions.


  • The PCC ruling against the PM’s article, seen by some as a “rehash” of MigrationWatch statements

The Prime Minister suffered severe embarrassment earlier this year when the Press Complaints Commission ruled an article he had contributed to the Telegraph breached the editor’s code of practice.

Cameron made the erroneous statement: “while most new jobs used to go to foreign workers, in the past year more than three quarters have gone to British workers.”

It was a claim based on ONS figures relating to net changes in employment, not “new jobs”, and the PPC said it “significantly misrepresented” official statistics.


  • Calls for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights

In 2006, MigrationWatch called the UK’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights “an attraction for terrorists to operate in and from Britain, secure in the knowledge that, even if convicted, they can never be deported and that, if they come under suspicion, they cannot be effectively detained”, advocating what some Conservative party figures are currently, and controversially, discussing.

Rebutting the argument made by those in favour of the Convention that no one should be subjected to torture, MigrationWatch said in the report that terrorists have “been given fair warning”.

I asked if the organisation still holds its position on this, and a spokesperson told me it "favours a UK Bill of Rights, so yes".


  • Hostility towards the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to grant two homosexual asylum seekers asylum

In 2010, the organisation put out a briefing paper following the Supreme Court’s decision, warning about the precedent it sets, and with rather dubious statements about our country’s approach to gay people:

It is understood that in some 80 countries the commission of homosexual acts is still a criminal offence. But the underlying assumption of the Supreme Court's judgment seems to be that if an asylum seeker professes himself unwilling to live discreetly as a homosexual in his home country and the evidence shows that that country's political and social system falls short of the degree of openness enjoyed by the population of the United Kingdom, then he is entitled to asylum here.


  • Past controversy

Though it's no longer the opinion of the organisation, back in 2004, MigrationWatch released a paper calling for HIV testing for potential immigrants, saying Britain should “follow suit without delay” countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand that use such a system. At the time, HIV testing to restrict access to Britain was criticised by the all-party parliamentary group on AIDS in 2003:

It would be in breach of international obligations and human rights to give mandatory HIV tests to asylum seekers upon entry and in addition there is no evidence to support that such a policy would be effective at protecting the public health.

This is notable, as Nigel Farage has recently caused outrage by calling to bar migrants with HIV.

A spokesperson told me the organisation doesn't delete past reports from its website, even if they no longer represent its views, which is why the 2004 HIV-related report remains online.

Here is MigrationWatch's statement on the peerage:

In the early years there was widespread reluctance to discuss the issue at all but MigrationWatch has worked steadily to improve public understanding of the impact of the very high levels of net migration of the past 15 years. Under Sir Andrew's guiding hand MigrationWatch has undeniably become a leading voice in a very necessary debate. 

Update, 27 October, 2014: This story originally referred to David Cameron being accused of "rehashing" statistics from Migrationwatch in his article for the Daily Telegraph. This was not accurate: the PCC ruled that the prime minister "significantly misrepresented" official statistics about migration, not MigrationWatch research. The article has been amended accordingly.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at 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.