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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.