Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The truth about migrants and benefits

Why let the facts get in the way of a good bit of immigrant-bashing? David Cameron certainly hasn’t. His speech today either highlights a woeful lack of knowledge of existing government policy or is deliberately misleading in order to whip up hysteria and community tensions. I’ll let you guess which.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research recently produced a report evidencing the net benefit European Economic Area migration has had to Treasury coffers. The Department for Work and Pensions’ own figures show that migrants make up 13 per cent of the UK’s workforce, but only seven per cent of out-of-work benefit claimants – less than the indigenous population. EEA migrants are 60 per cent less likely than British citizens to claim state benefits and are 58 per cent less likely to live in social housing. Yet all we hear from Cameron and co is that hordes of people are coming here from eastern Europe and elsewhere to scrounge off the state, get a free house and access free healthcare.

In his latest speech, Cameron promises reform in these three areas. But is it actually the case that we already have robust policies that make a lie of Cameron’s claims? Let’s look at each in turn:

Access to benefits

In his speech Cameron will say, ‘We’re going to give migrants from the European Economic Area a very clear message. Just like British citizens, there is no absolute right to unemployment benefit.’ Do EEA migrants currently enjoy some special right? No.

Inactive EEA nationals – ie those out of work and not seeking employment – cannot access income-related benefits in the UK. Contributory benefits can only be accessed if the necessary contributions and other conditions are met. Only EEA nationals with ‘worker status’ – in work or demonstrably seeking employment – can access in-work benefits such as housing benefit, council tax benefit and tax credits. Child benefit, child tax credit, state pension credit and employment support allowance for EEA nationals all depend on national insurance contributions and passing a ‘right to reside’ test, introduced by Labour in 2004.

As for the unemployed, EU law only grants access to unemployment benefits on the same basis as nationals of the country in question. So migrants coming here from EEA countries have the same rights and have to go through the same processes as a UK citizen wanting to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. EU citizens seeking work can claim JSA for up to six months and must undergo the same requirements as a UK jobseeker – signing a Jobcentre contract, attending interviews and so on. Unemployed EU citizens cannot claim income support, employment support allowance or the state pension credit.

Access to social housing

Cameron will promise to impose an expectation on councils to introduce a local residency test in determining who should qualify for social housing. Does the current system give some special right to immigrants? No.

Nobody automatically qualifies for social housing – not even born-and-bred Brits. Eligibility for social housing is determined by local authorities, and already includes criteria on having a link to the area – with many authorities giving additional points if this is met. Like everyone else, EEA migrants have to go through a thorough application process.

Access to healthcare

We’re told that ‘health tourism’ is a serious problem that is draining resources from the NHS and Cameron will pledge a crackdown. Can migrants come here from the EU and all over the world and access free healthcare? No.

Rules on who is eligible for free comprehensive NHS care are decided by the UK government, not the EU. In addition to UK citizens, others with access include overseas workers and students and citizens from countries with whom we have a reciprocal healthcare agreement. With the exception of emergency treatment by a GP or at A&E, overseas visitors are charged for all inpatient and outpatient hospital care. Immigration rules say that if someone owes more than £1,000 in NHS charges they will be refused a visa to enter the UK.

I welcome the newfound interest of politicians to start talking about immigration. But let’s make sure they have the facts straight if we’re to have an open and honest debate about the issue.


Kevin Peel is a councillor on Manchester city council and tweets @kevpeel


Photo: David Sim

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Kevin Peel

is a Labour and Co-operative councillor on Manchester city council and represents the north west on the EU committee of the regions. He tweets @kevpeel


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