A ‘simple rule’ about migrants and benefits

9th March, 2013

Clues to the UK’s woes lurk in its own backyard, writes Tim Harford

‘Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary . . . said the number of EU migrants claiming benefits in Britain had reached a “crisis” and confirmed the government was “looking at what we can do” to limit new arrivals’ access to welfare’
FT.com, March 6

Never a man to waste a good crisis, that IDS fellow.

Or manufacture one. Mr Duncan Smith’s declaration hits all the right notes for a Conservative politician: the welfare scroungers are picking our pockets; there are too many foreigners around; and it’s all the fault of the EU. But behind the mood music there isn’t a lot of substance. We don’t know for sure how many EU migrants claim benefits but Mr Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions did publish a fascinating estimate in January 2012.

Which found?

The DWP looked at people who were of working age, and who were not UK citizens at the time they applied for a national insurance number. They found that in February 2011, 6.6 per cent of such people were claiming a working age benefit such as jobseeker’s allowance.

That must be hundreds of thousands of people, though.

Over a third of a million people, yes. But 93.4 per cent of the working-age immigrant population are not claiming working-age benefits. This ratio compares very favourably indeed with the homegrown working-age population: 16.6 per cent of us were claiming working-age benefits. Is this really what an immigrant benefit crisis looks like?

But Mr Duncan Smith particularly drew attention to immigrants from the EU.

I don’t know why. The DWP’s own figures show that EU accession countries hardly figure in the list of benefit claimants, who are much more likely to come from India, Pakistan, Somalia or Bangladesh. There are a lot of Poles in the country but they only come seventh on the list of benefit-claiming immigrants.

But immigrants also use public resources such as care in the National Health Service or school places.

And they pay for them too. An analysis by University of College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, published in July 2009, found that immigrants from the EU8 accession countries had been net contributors to the public purse in every year since May 2004, when these central and eastern European states joined the EU. Given that the UK population as a whole had been draining the public purse by running a deficit, this is an impressive achievement.

But the situation might change when Romanians and Bulgarians are allowed to work here next year.

Lots of things might happen. Forecasts on this question have been very poor in the past. Official forecasts of how many immigrants might show up when the borders were opened to eastern Europe in 2004 were dramatic underestimates. But despite this unexpected immigration bulge, things have been fine. I mean, the country has gone to the dogs since 2004, but it’s hard to make a case that the Poles themselves caused any trouble.

Unless Gordon Brown has a Polish grandmother?

Or George Osborne. Or Fred Goodwin. Or Sir Mervyn King. Whoever you want to blame for the state we’re in, it needs a peculiarly xenophobic mindset to point the finger at immigration, even if it did happen on a far greater scale than anyone expected.

Social cohesion has to be an issue. I see Ed Miliband wants to ensure that people speak English. No wonder: the 2011 census found a million households in England and Wales that speak no English.

So a number of commentators claimed – for instance Jackie Ashley in the Guardian. The census actually found something different: 1m households where English or Welsh was not the first language. But that doesn’t tell us anything about whether English was spoken well, poorly or not at all.

The Labour leader wants a ‘simple rule’: to make sure people who work in the public sector, face to face with the public, can speak English.

Does this country really hire lots of public sector workers who are unable to function because they can’t speak English? If we do, that’s a sign of a serious problem and one that will not be fixed by the sticking plaster of Mr Miliband’s “simple rule”. The British economy and public finances are in a bad state. If our borders had been closed to eastern Europe in 2004 they would be worse.

Also published at ft.com.

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