Hard evidence: are migrants draining the welfare system?

Are migrants really “costing the taxpayer billions of pounds per year” or is there more to it than that? Carlos Vargas-Silva, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, looks at the data.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, where it forms part of Hard Hard Evidence, a series of articles that looks at some of the trickiest public policy questions we face. Academic experts delve into available research evidence to provide informed analysis you won’t get from politicians or vested interests.

Recent data released by the Department for Work and Pensions under the Freedom of Information Act revealed the number of people claiming working age benefits who were non-British nationals when they first registered for a National Insurance Number.

One of the figures from the new dataset that caught the attention of several newspapers was the increase in claims from those who were nationals of EU accession countries (i.e. the new EU members states that have joined since 2004). This number increased from 12,610 in 2008, to 49,720 in 2012. This fact led to statements such as this one from the Daily Mail:

Number of foreigners claiming UK benefits leaps 41% in 5 years … rise has been fuelled by a four-fold increase in benefit claims by Eastern Europeans.

The common narrative was one of growing concern, given the new wave of Eastern European migration that the UK may experience with the relaxation of border controls on Romanian and Bulgarian workers in 2014.

Preliminary number-crunching

It would be tempting to dismiss these new numbers from DWP for three reasons, but these reasons can all be countered convincingly.

1) The data are for those who were non-British nationals when they first registered for a NINO and many of those could now be British nationals.

But this is unlikely to play a big role for nationals of EU accession countries as there is little incentive to become British nationals.

2) The increase in the annual number of nationals of EU accession countries claiming working-age benefits was only 37,000, much smaller than the equivalent increase for British nationals (588,000).

True, but the 2008-2013 percentage increase in the annual number of EU accession country nationals claiming DWP working age benefits was almost 300%, far greater than any other group. The increase was 12% for British nationals.

3) The number of nationals of EU accession countries living in the UK has been increasing over the past few years. Therefore, we should expect the number of nationals of EU accession countries claiming benefits to also increase.

Again this is true, but according to Office for National Statistics there were 497,000 Polish nationals living in the UK during 2008. This compares to 646,000 Polish nationals living in the UK during 2012, representing a 30% increase for the five year period. This increase in the population is much smaller than the increase in nationals of EU accession countries among benefit claimants (close to 300%). Even if you include other major groups of nationals of the accession countries in the UK such as Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Czech Republic and Hungary the percentage increase in the population is just 54%.

So the problem is not with the figures, per se. The problem is that some sectors of the media used the data to suggest that migrants (particularly nationals of EU accession countries) drain UK public coffers. The Daily Mail’s conclusion was:

They are costing taxpayers billions of pounds a year.                                    

The fiscal impact of migration

In order to find out whether the Daily Mail was correct in its conclusion, it is necessary to look at two factors: the taxes and other contributions migrants make to public finances and the costs of the public benefits and services they receive. Subtract the second from the first and you get the answer. If the difference is positive, migrants are net-contributors; if the difference is negative, migrants are a burden for the state.

The academic literature on the fiscal impacts of migration suggests that migrants doing highly paid jobs are the ones more likely to make a positive contribution to public finances. These migrants pay more taxes and are less likely to claim benefits. It is well known that nationals of the EU accession countries in the UK tend to do low-paid jobs. Does this mean that they have a negative fiscal impact?

It may come as a surprise that the only study which comprehensively analyses the fiscal impact of migration from the EU accession countries, in their case nationals from the A8 countries (the eight countries that joined the EU in May 2004 – excepting Cyprus and Malta), found that in the four fiscal years after they joined the EU, migrants to the UK from A8 countries made a positive contribution to public finances.

The finding that A8 workers make a positive contribution to UK public finances contrasts with the fact that most A8 workers concentrate in the low-wage sector. However, as shown in Figure 1, A8 workers have one the highest employment rates in the UK, a fact which offsets the effect of their lower wages.


Figure 1 – Employment rates of British, Old EU, A8 and non-EU nationals Note: these are ONS estimates from the UK Labour Force Survey

The result that migration has a net positive fiscal impact is not limited to nationals of the A8 countries. The OECD recently estimated that on average, households headed by migrants in the UK contributed about €3,000 more than they received in benefits in 2007-2009.

Netting the benefits

Has there been a significant increase in the number of nationals of the EU accession countries claiming DWP working age benefits? Yes.

Has the positive fiscal impact of migrants from the EU accession countries changed since 2008-2009? This is less clear.

Establishing whether the increase in the proportion of nationals of the EU accession countries claiming benefits has been offset by their increase in the working population or increased wages in that group is not possible to know without further study.

The only thing we can say for certain is that the concept that they are “costing the taxpayer billions of pounds per year” is pure speculation and is not supported by the data.

Carlos Vargas-Silva does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

A protester holds a sign during a march hoping to draw attention to claims of exploitation and discrimination of migrant workers in 2007. Photo: Getty

Carlos Vargas-Silva is a Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

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.