"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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear