The economy is crawling out of a crippling recession, people have lost their jobs, people have had their benefits cut, homelessness and suicides have gone up. But these aren’t the only negative consequences of recession; it also comes with a lot of hate and hostility. During this time, vulnerable groups are often convenient scapegoats for all our problems.
In December this year the quotas limiting Romanians and Bulgarians from working in Britain will end. Britain is not able to extend the ‘transitional arrangements’ but Home Secretary, Mrs Theresa May, has vowed to clamp down on ‘pull factors’ to Britain. She told the Andrew Marr programme:
‘There are no further transitional controls that we can put on…. But that’s where the importance of looking at some of the issues about what it is that is attracting people to come here, in terms of things like our benefits system and access to the health service, is so important.’
I would excuse anyone for thinking that thousands of immigrants are planning to migrate so they can live the life of luxury on benefits and turn up at A&E every day. The problem with labelling immigrants as ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘health tourists’ is it’s so far from the truth.
Studies – including the ‘Unemployment Benefits and Immigration: Evidence from the EU’ – have rejecting the welfare magnet hypothesis after finding that immigration within the EU does not respond to unemployment beneﬁt incentives. The fact is the vast majority of immigrations come to Britain for work or study. In the year to June 2011 the estimated number of long-term migrants whose main reason for entering the UK was work-related stood at 185,000 whilst the estimated number of long-term migrants whose main reason was formal study was 237,000 in the same year to June.
So why is the discussion on immigration focused on targeting those that abuse the system? Well, no official statistics on the potential number of Romanians and Bulgarians who will migrate to Britain are being released by the government, for fear of getting it drastically wrong as the previous government did. This has allowed UKIP to declare themselves the only party able to stop the two countries being completely deserted by its citizens who will inevitably row to Britain in canoes hand-made by German bureaucrats. The current government is realistically unable to do anything about the citizens of Romania and Bulgaria gaining rights to work in Britain without either leaving the EU or obtaining reform through negotiation. Thus, in a bid to seem ‘tough on immigration’ and compete with UKIP, politicians have consistently advocated that they will clamp down on the fraudsters. The problem with this is that people do not come to Britain to live off the state.
Caution, if you’re a BNP or UKIP supporter you might want to sit down – A government report clearly showed that migrants are substantially less likely to claim benefits than the UK-born population. As of February 2011, there were 5.5m people receiving working-age benefits. Some 371,000 of those were foreign nationals when they first came to the UK, representing 6.4% of the claimants. However, more than half of those receiving a benefit had at some point become British citizens, meaning they had the same rights as people born British. Still, there are some who question whether these people are ‘truly’ British or ‘deserve’ benefits, well, one example of a foreign-born British citizen, now living off the state is Prince Philip. Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant told the BBC: “These could be people who came in the late 1930s or 1940s as children, then got British citizenship, worked all their lives, paid National Insurance, paid tax and are now in receipt of benefits.” He added: “What the figures do show is that migrants into this country are more likely to be in work than British people.”
The argument against immigration is also filled with contradictions; they can’t be ‘taking all our jobs’, ‘willing to work for nothing’ and be ‘coming here to leech of our benefit system’ – unless migrants are cloning themselves so they can work and cheat the government out of a cheque. It’s either they have a good work ethic and have come here to work for a better life or have children and claim benefits. This doesn’t been that there aren’t some abuses of the system, but all evidence suggests that the majority are hard working. For example, the contribution of the A8 citizens (the 8 countries from Eastern Europe who joined the EU in May 2004) in taxes was over 35% higher than the amount they received in benefits. The revelation by key pundits that migrants can claim benefits after 3 months has led to extensive debate and anger. Yet, of the 500,000 poles that came to Britain since 2004, only 0.6% actually took benefits.
Even if there are people who choose their country of destination based on its benefit system, would Britain really be first on the list? Is it worth putting up with our notoriously bad weather, long queues and yobs? It’s hard to say in concrete terms how Europe’s welfare systems compare in terms of their ‘generosity’, but Eurostat, the official statistics outlet of the European Union, compiles its own figures on welfare expenditure. Based on their stats, if we focus purely on spending administered by central government then the UK tops Europe’s league table for benefits spending. However if you look at total social expenditure, then the UK ranks just above the EU average, below France, Germany, Italy and the Eurozone mean. Many people in Britain seem to think that we are the Father Christmas of Europe; the fact is Britain has been ranked everywhere from the top to below average in terms of the ‘generosity’ of our benefit system.
Abuse of Britain’s benefit system has been hugely exaggerated; either out of ignorance, political opportunism or the want of selling papers. Immigrants with a willingness to work, live and contribute are being labelled as scroungers and a burden. It’s time the contribution and cost of immigration was put back into perspective.