Comment: EU migrants come for the benefits? The figures tell a different story

Catherine Harris, Research Fellow in EU Migration and Ethnic Entrepreneurship at the University of Sheffield, discusses why plans to ban EU immigrants from receiving state benefits for at least four years is ineffective.

EU migrants come for the benefits? The figures tell a different story

by Catherine Harris, 1 December 2014, posted on The Conversation

Prime minister David Cameron has announced plans to ban EU immigrants from receiving state benefits, including tax credits and social housing for a minimum of four years.

The proposal is designed to make sure low-skilled workers don’t end up taking home significantly more in the UK than they would by working at home, thereby deterring them from leaving in the first place. But cutting out-of-work benefits is an ineffective way to do this. Migrants come to the UK to work – not to live on benefits.

Only a small number of EU migrants are actually claiming welfare benefits in the UK. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of EU working-age benefit claimants doubled from 65,000 to 130,000.

But government data show the majority of claimants are still from outside the EU. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of claimants are British. In 2014, 4.9 million working-age benefit claimants – 92.6% of the total – were British while only 131,000, or 2.5%, were EU nationals. The number of recipients from outside of the UK – but not from the EU – was 264,000, or 5%.

A similar pattern exists for tax credits. In 2013 3.9 million families receiving these benefits were British citizens – 84.8% of the total. Only 302,000 (6.4%) were EU citizens and 413,000 (8.8%) were from outside of the UK.

This suggests that the decision to migrate to the UK is not motivated by a desire to claim benefits. And EU migrants say as much when asked. They say overwhelmingly that they want to move to the UK for a better to work, make money and live a better life as a result.

They want to be seen as hard-working and as making a contribution to both the UK economy and their local communities. They often take low-paid jobs that the British do not want to do.

And while some of the money they earn is sent home, much is put back into the UK economy through taxes and through their financial contribution to local businesses. The European Commission supports this, arguing that EU migrants continue to make a net contribution to their host countries' finances, by paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

Many EU migrants are not benefit scroungers or job-takers, even if they are often portrayed as such. My research into Polish businesses in the UK shows Polish migrants have set up entrepreneurial ventures that go beyond the plumber, fruit picker and delicatessen stereotypes.

Businesses include recruitment agencies, marketing agencies and large food factories. Not only have these provided jobs for migrants, they have also, in some cases, provided jobs to British workers who were previously unemployed.

In towns and cities throughout the UK, run-down streets have been transformed when migrant businesses move in, paying rates to local councils. It’s hard to agree that the impetus in these cases is to claim benefits. EU migrants are going to great lengths to establish themselves in the UK and to secure work not only for themselves but others too.

And it’s therefore hard to imagine how reducing the number of EU migrants receiving British benefits would make a significant difference to the overall welfare bill or, indeed, how Cameron’s plan will have any substantial impact on reducing the flows of EU migrants to the UK.