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The truth behind our political parties’ immigration policy arms race

This year, all the main parties have been competing over who can curb benefits for migrants the most. Why is this their approach?

This year has seen an immigration policy arms race among the main Westminster parties. But policy-wise, it’s more specific than a question of who can generally talk the toughest on immigration. Each party has proposed policies on how far they would curb benefits for EU migrants.

The coalition has already clamped down on what migrants are allowed to claim, introducing a three-month wait for migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance, child benefit, and child tax credits. To stay longer than three months, they have to be in work or actively seeking it. And from April this year, new EEA migrant jobseekers have no longer been allowed housing benefit.

This was all part of a political race to who could promise the fewest benefits for migrants. Labour weighed in with a proposal for a two-year benefits delay. David Cameron responded with four years. In his Financial Times article laying out his view on immigration, Nick Clegg also backed curbing benefits for migrants, writing: “We should make sure that only migrants who have worked and contributed can receive the support. New jobseekers should not be eligible [for universal credit]”.

But why attack immigrants via benefits, when they overwhelmingly move to Britain to work and study?

There’s nothing else they can say

Ukip provides a simple answer to the question it poses about reducing net migration: it calls for Britain to exit the European Union. This would stop Britain being obliged to host EU migrants, as any renegotiation of our EU membership would be unlikely to overhaul the core freedom of movement principle.

So David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – all of whom currently support the UK remaining in the EU – cannot realistically promise to block EU migrants from coming to Britain without coming out in favour of leaving the EU. So their only option is to come down increasingly harder on the welfare available to these migrants.

It’s conveniently popular

It’s useful for Cameron et al that the only policy they can pursue in terms of immigration is most popular among voters. Polls recording attitudes to immigration have long shown that respondents see it as first and foremost a drain on the welfare state, ahead of any concerns about migrants taking their potential jobs. ComRes polling this time last year ahead of Romania and Bulgaria joining the EU’s freedom of movement area showed this clearly:

Click on table to enlarge


Click on table to enlarge

This year's NatCen Social Research British Social Attitudes survey showed 61 per cent of British people think immigrants from the EU should have to wait three years or more before they are allowed to claim welfare benefits. And that was before Cameron mooted four years.

This perception doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation; the concept of “benefits tourism” is a myth. While it is convenient for our politicians that the most popular approach to immigration policy – cracking down on benefits – is the one approach they can take without calling for Britain to leave the EU, this will cause problems in the long term. It is a “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist. Not only will it do little to change immigration numbers in the way the rhetoric suggests – it’s also unlikely to change attitudes.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.