There is literally no evidence of welfare tourism in the UK, either by EU or non-EU migrants.
After months of uncertainty, aided and abetted by some truly epic diplomatic failures by David Cameron, yesterday we finally got some clarity around the content of his renegotiation of our relationship with the rest of the EU.
Three out of Cameron’s four negotiating priorities appear, by and large, fairly sensible. Indeed, many of his calls for change have been the bread and butter of Labour’s European agenda for years.
Improving economic competitiveness, ensuring fairness for non-Eurozone countries, and increasing the role for domestic parliaments in EU decision-making have not just been aspirations for Labour in Europe; our party has been practically engaged in trying to deliver them, often with significant success.
It has also been encouraging to see Cameron abandoning his previous calls to junk EU social protections, although we must ensure that purported new mechanisms to ‘reduce administrative burdens’ are not just excuses for deregulation.
Most of the media’s focus on Cameron’s renegotiation has, however, been around the issue of freedom of movement. Surprisingly little coverage has focused on new measures proposed yesterday by the EU, to enable countries to apply their own laws on immigration to the non-EU spouses of EU migrants.
Rather more, generally uncritical, coverage has focused on Cameron’s demands on EU migrants’ benefits, and whether these have been granted by the EU or otherwise.
The way in which Cameron has manipulated and misrepresented the issue of EU migrants’ benefits should be a national scandal – but has received scant comment outside the relatively small community of social policy experts and well-informed journalists.
In his speech yesterday, Cameron repeated his claim that the British welfare system is a magnet to migrants. Yet there is literally no evidence of welfare tourism in the UK, either by EU or non-EU migrants, with UK benefits being substantially less generous than those of most comparator countries, and EU migrants comprising a relatively small number of those using benefits.
In 2014, the DWP reported that EU migrants accounted for only 2.5 per cent of the benefits it administered. And in 2013, in-work benefits for EU migrants cost less than 2 per cent of the overall tax credit bill for that year.
It is unpleasant at best to see a multimillionaire like Cameron trying to turn the British public against people whose only crime is to be paid too little to live on and to be unable to find affordable accommodation, just for the sake of keeping his party together.
But then party management, rather than the real interests of the UK, have always been at the heart of Cameron’s agenda. The core benefits of EU membership for the UK remain – thankfully – untouched by his renegotiation: the one-in-ten British jobs which depend on EU trade, the rights which ensure us all four weeks’ paid holiday and keep us safe at work, the protections which keep the air we breathe and the water we drink relatively clean, and the essential funding for our universities, research and economically depressed areas.
I hope that over the weeks and months to come the referendum debate will focus on these issues, rather than whether British Tory politicians have made life hard enough for a relatively small number of European migrants in low-paid work.
(Featured on Left Foot Forward)