"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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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.