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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.