"Benefits tourism" is largely a myth. Photo: Getty
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Why cracking down on "benefits tourism" won't get David Cameron very far

Central to the Prime Minister's plan to "toughen" his stance on immigration is to curb welfare to migrants. But "benefits tourism" is a myth.

We must anchor the debate in fact not prejudice.

This is what David Cameron said in his speech about immigration this morning. He also emphasised that "the great majority of those who come here from Europe come to work, work hard and pay their taxes".

However, these two points haven't stopped the Prime Minister's central policy proposal when it comes to immigration being to curb and delay benefits for EU migrants. Cameron's idea, to stop EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits, such as tax credits, and getting access to social housing for four years, is an even tougher version of Labour's proposal to delay such benefits for two years.

Both parties seem to be in a welfare-restricting arms race on immigration, because this is the only possible approach; controlling the borders by restricting freedom of movement would be impossible as long as Britain remains an EU member.

However, cracking down on "benefits tourism" won't get the PM, nor his opposition, very far. This is because the phenomenon is largely a myth.

Firstly, as Cameron himself pointed out, EU migrants come to the UK overwhelmingly to work or study. The largest number of migrants (228,000) in the year ending March 2014 came to the UK for work purposes. According to the 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.

And they are successfully finding 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 latest DWP figures from 2014 show that there are 1.73m EU nationals working in the UK, equal to 5.7 per cent of all people in work. 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.

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), suggesting a key reason for migration to the UK is to find work. It is also notable how low the number of EU migrants claiming out-of-work benefits is here: 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.

Also significant is that 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. And according to a 2012 European Commission report into welfare spending in EU states, the UK is not hugely "generous", as Cameron describes it. 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”.

There may be individual cases of migrants coming to the UK because they are attracted by the benefits they could receive, but this is not a significant phenomenon, and certainly doesn't amount to the hordes of visitors arriving on a jolly as the term "benefits tourism" suggests.

Focusing on restricting welfare even further won't help the Prime Minister in his ambitions to "control" immigration levels. This is because what he is trying to crack down on does not really exist. It is also an illogical approach, because EU migrants choose to come to the UK over other EU member states mainly due to our relatively healthy economy and the fact that we offer more job opportunities than our European counterparts. This means Cameron having to play down the significance of the apparent recovery of which his party is so vehemently trying to take ownership. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.