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.