Migrants want to come to Britain to work, not for "benefit tourism". Photo: Getty
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EU migrants add £20bn to our GDP: but is the UK more generous in benefits than its neighbours?

A new UCL study shows that European migrants are not a drain on our resources, but what about the perception that Britain is an "El Dorado" for immigrants?

A highly topical top story this week is a new UCL study showing that, far from being a drain on Britain's finances, EU migrants pay out far more in taxes than they receive in state benefits. The key line from the report is that the UK gained a net contribution of £20bn from European migrants in 2000-11. But the Mail and the Telegraph have taken the line from the study that non-EU migrants have cost the UK £120bn in 1995-2011. However, this should be put into context with the fact that UK nationals cost the country £591bn in the same time period.

This research highlights an important, and, in these Ukip-tinged times, often unheard, argument that migrants from the European Union benefit UK GDP rather than being a drain on our resources. However, the perception persists – particularly from those who support Ukip's campaign to "take control of our borders" by taking Britain out of the EU – that migrants are "benefit tourists" and, in the words of Calais' mayor, see Britain as "El Dorado" due to its welfare hand-outs.

There are two questions here:

 - How generous is the UK compared to its European neighbours, in terms of benefits and housing?

 - How likely is it that immigrants come to the UK for benefits?

 

Let's start with the first one. 

Most experts I've spoken to have been reluctant to make such comparisons, as the systems are so varied and there are huge structural differences between EU member states.

However, it appears that the UK is not a great deal more generous than other comparable EU member states.

The UK ranks nowhere near highest in terms of total social security spending per head. It spends less than France and Germany on this per inhabitant. For example, in 2011, the UK spent €7,350.66 per inhabitant, the 15th highest of the member states, below France and Germany. However, it is also true that a higher share of welfare spending in France and Germany is linked to previous earnings via individual and employer contributions than in the UK, where the state shoulders a higher share.

According to a 2012 European Commission report into welfare spending in EU states, the UK is no El Dorado. The report identifies Belgium, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Finland and the Netherlands as “relatively generous”, comparing them to “the UK, Malta, Slovakia, Estonia, Poland and Romania” where “benefit conditions are relatively tight”. It analyses the UK in comparison to other states thus:

In Anglo-Saxon countries [Ireland, the UK, Malta, Cyprus], unemployment insurance benefits are relatively modest, while unemployment assistance is a relevant means-tested instrument to provide income protection to the unemployed . . . To counter benefit dependency, monitoring of job-search activity is strict whilst active labour market policies play a less important role. 

And when put into the context of its "homogenous group" – ie. states that are most comparable to the UK within the EU – it is still thought of as less generous: "Luxembourg, Sweden and the UK tend to have less generous benefits when compared to their own group averages than when compared to the EU average".

The government has recently introduced harsher rules for what EU migrants can receive in benefits. These include jobseekers from the European Economic Area (EEA) – predominantly migrants from EU states – having to wait three months before they can claim Jobseekers’ Allowance. This is the same for accessing child benefit and child tax credits.

To stay longer than three months, they have to be in work, actively seeking work, or have a genuine chance of being hired. Either that, or they have to prove that they have the resources to remain without being a burden on public services.

EU migrants cannot automatically claim benefits after three months. They have to pass a “habitual residence test” under EU law. This covers the individual’s status regarding their duration of stay, activity, income if they are students, family status, and housing situation. Even if they pass this, they can then only claim Jobseekers’ Allowance for six months – after that, only those with a job offer or proof they are likely to find work are allowed to continue claiming.

On top of the tests required under EU law, the UK applies an additional test: the “Right to reside”. This limits certain benefits. The European Commission sees this as an unfair extra hurdle and has referred the UK to the EU’s Court of Justice on the matter.

And housing?

There are similar levels of UK nationals and foreign-born individuals living in social housing: 17 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively. It is not the case that immigrants receive preferential treatment on council housing lists.

The immigrant population is almost three times as likely to be in the private rental sector than their UK-born neighbours: 38 per cent compared to 14 per cent.

From April this year, new EEA migrant jobseekers have no longer been allowed housing benefit.

So it doesn't sound like the UK is notably generous – and it certainly cannot be painted as an El Dorado. Also important to note is that rules are even stricter for non-EU migrants.

 

And how likely is it that EU migrants travelling to the UK are doing so for the benefits?

Less than 5 per cent of EU migrants are claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance, while less than 10 per cent are claiming other DWP working-age benefits. On top of this, the think tank Class found that of those who claim Jobseekers’ Allowance, 91.5 per cent are UK nationals. Additionally, among unemployed migrants, only 1 per cent claim unemployment benefits, compared to the 4 per cent of unemployed UK nationals who are claimants.

Migrants are overwhelmingly coming to the UK either to study or to work, rather than being “benefit tourists”. And they are successfully gaining employment: according to the latest ONS figures, estimated employment of EU citizens was 17 per cent higher in April to June 2014 compared to the same period last year.

The largest number of migrants (228,000) in the year ending March 2014 came to the UK for work purposes. According to Oxford University's Migration Observatory, the increase in EU migrants for work purposes is likely to be linked to employment opportunities created by the UK’s recent economic growth, which is relatively stronger than its fellow developed EU economies.

The employment rate for non-UK born workers is 70 per cent, compared to the 73.2 per cent of UK born workers. The employment rate for EU nationals living in the UK is 79 per cent. This is according to the latest figures, from the April-June 2014 Labour Force Survey. Also, from the Annual Population Survey we know that over 6m of the approximate number of 7.8m foreign-born people in the UK are of working age.

Plus, the UK is the only EU country to have a lower unemployment rate for migrants than nationals (7.5 per cent to 7.9 per cent respectively), from 2012 Eurostat statistics, suggesting a key reason for migration to the UK is to find work.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.