Dog-whistling on migrants and benefits

Tory ministers Chris Grayling and Damian Green are manipulating the facts to suit their agenda.

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Today's news has focused on the link between immigration and the benefits system, prompted by a joint op-ed in the Telegraph by ministers Chris Grayling and Damian Green, suggesting that too many migrants are claiming benefits.

Last week, the line from the anti-immigration camp -- spanning Conservative ministers, the pressure group MigrationWatch, and right-wing newspapers including the Telegraph, Mail, Express, and Sun -- was that immigration had increased the numbers of British people on out-of-work benefits. This week, we are told it is immigrants themselves who are adding to a bloated benefits bill. You could be forgiven for wondering if the anti-immigration camp is trying to have it both ways. It is possible, of course, for both claims to be true; but in each case the actual numbers tell a different story.

I discussed last week's argument here. In assessing today's, we need to separate two questions. The first is whether there is a big problem with migrants claiming benefits illegitimately: as Grayling and Green put it, "we have to have a system that stops people receiving money that they should not be entitled to". The second is whether, even if they are entitled, the sheer scale or proportion of claims tells us something significant or troubling about the extent to which immigration is a burden or a benefit for the country.

The answer to the first question seems to be a clear "no": of the sample of migrants claiming out-of-work benefits who have been investigated, two per cent were found to be not entitled. Ministers are right to say these should be dealt with, like other examples of illegitimate claims, but the suggestion that this is a major factor in the affordability or integrity of the benefits system, given that -- if the two per cent figure is representative -- it equates to around one in a thousand of those on out-of-work benefits, is deeply misleading. (When pressed on this, Grayling fell back on the argument that the number could be larger since the investigation hasn't been completed; to which the obvious rejoinder is, why not wait until it had been completed before making an issue out of it?)

The second point about the sheer scale of claims relies on the large-seeming number of 370,000 migrants on out-of-work benefits, which the Telegraph duly turned into their front page headline. But seen in context, this number is less surprising. There are around four million foreign-born workers in the UK: that is about 13 per cent of the labour force -- compared to 11.5 per cent of the population as a whole. As for the 370,000 migrants on out-of-work benefits, that represents about 6.5 per cent of the total number claiming such benefits. In other words, migrants make up more than their fair share of those who are working and paying taxes; and less than their fair share of those who are claiming out-of-work benefits: a finding which is consistent with numerous economic studies down the years. Jonathan Portes of NIESR has more detail here. As he says, many would say these numbers look like good news.

For Grayling and Green, however, they show that "Labour didn't care who landed in Britain". Like David Cameron, they defend themselves against the charge that they are simply anti-immigration by responding: Look, all we are saying is that there is "good" immigration and "bad" immigration. Labour are supposed to have denied this, whereas a Conservative-led government will ensure that the immigration system admits only "the brightest and best".

In fact, Labour's approach was increasingly selective -- and rightly so. But it is stupid or misleading to imply that any government could guarantee to admit only migrants who are never going to end up out of work. Those who advocate the economic benefits of immigration argue that it is good for the economy overall: that doesn't mean it is good for every single individual, or even every group; nor does it mean that every single migrant has been a positive net fiscal contributor. But in most areas of policy, we accept the need to take the rough with the smooth. Most migrants are net positive contributors. A disproportionate number go on to run businesses, or excel in other fields -- like the Nobel-winning scientists whom George Osborne lauded in his last speech to Conservative party conference. The great majority work, at an average slightly above the median, and pay taxes. They aren't entitled to claim benefits when they arrive, but after they have paid enough contributions, or been here long enough, they are. Some of them will suffer periods of unemployment -- particularly in conditions like we find ourselves in at the moment. Again, the detail of Grayling and Green's article accepts this: "if someone works and pays taxes here," they say, "it's not unreasonable that we should help out if they fall on hard times". But the intervention as a whole is designed to suggest that the mere fact of large numbers of migrants claiming benefits, even if proportionately lower than for the population as a whole -- and even in a recession -- is a problem in itself.

When Grayling was challenged on some of these points on the Today programme, he fell back on the claim that in publishing the figures he was merely "trying to answer questions we have been asked". But this is disingenuous: there are ways of answering questions other than giving a joint op-ed to a friendly newspaper. The fairly blatant way in which official research is being manipulated and framed to meet political objectives is another example of the trend described earlier this week by Gavin Kelly, of the government behaving like an opposition. Along with ministers' previous attempts to link immigration to unemployment, it is increasingly hard to shake the suspicion that they are simply using the issue to distract from their failure to come up with answers to the real problems facing the country.

The accusation of "dog-whistling" has been over-used in relation to immigration, applied to any politician who raises the issue in a negative way. As well as being unfair, this plays into the damaging myth that people "aren't allowed to talk about immigration". However, on those occasions when politicians really are dog whistling -- and this applies to today's intervention by Grayling and Green -- it is right that they should be called on it.

Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_