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Why EU migrants aren’t “benefits scroungers”

A new report adds to the evidence about the economic benefits of immigration, but will it change anything?

By Josh Lowe  

JAN: Keith Vaz MP greets the first Romanians and Bulgarians with unrestricted access to the British labour market © Jennifer Cockerell/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Immigrants! They come over here, claiming our benefits, living in our social housing and taking advantage of the good-hearted British taxpayer, right?

Apparently not, according to a new report published in The Economics Journal today. UCL Academics Professor Christian Dustmann and Dr Tommaso Frattini have calculated that immigrants from the EU are less likely to claim benefits and on average contribute more to the UK economy than native Brits. As Dustmann put it at a press conference yesterday: “these guys pay more in than they take out.”

So what are the findings, and will they change anything? We run through the key points below.

What did Dustmann and Frattini find?

This report is a rebuttal of the myth that EU immigrants come here to claim benefits and avoid work. EU immigrants, the report says, were between 2000 and 2011 16.5-24 per cent less likely than native Brits to claim some sort of benefits. EU immigrants are a net economic benefit to the UK, the study finds, and that goes not only for immigrants from the wealthier Western nations of the EU, but also for the so-called “A10 countries”—those which joined in 2004 like Poland (which historically have caused some political controversy), plus Malta and Cyprus. Over the period 2000-2011, the contribution to the economy of A10 immigrants was £5bn and of other EU migrants was £15bn. That contrasts with the negative contribution of British natives—to the tune of -£617bn. Dustmann also yesterday highlighted that Britain is unusual in benefitting so much from immigration—A10 immigrants to Germany, for example, are less well educated and less likely to be of working age than their counterparts who upped sticks to Britain, he said.

Why does this stuff matter?

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Dustmann bemoaned the “very strong, anecdotally based debate” on immigration within British politics: “I have [never] seen a research report coming out of Downing st,” he added. That’s putting it mildly. Since the rise of Ukip, Conservative politicians have scrambled over each other to bash immigrants and talk up the need to bring down their numbers, with Labour following only slightly reluctantly behind. This may in part have contributed to a lack of public understanding about the numbers behind immigration, particularly around benefits. According to YouGov, the median guess among voters of how many EU immigrants are currently claiming job seekers’ allowance is 300,000; five time the true figure of 60,000. In their report, Dustmann and Frattini argue that immigrants contributing “their fair share” is more important to the public than the other key area of debate; the impact immigration has on wages. that may be true, insofar as YouGov has found that voters are much more concerned about the impact of immigration on the country as a whole than its impact on them and their family.

Will this change anything?

By itself: probably not. In the past, Nigel Farage has deftly swept aside the economic argument for more immigration by saying he would prefer to have “communities that were united” and more employment opportunities for natives thanks to lower levels of immigration than greater economic growth. Ukip’s Immigration Spokesman Steven Woolfe, responding to the report, says that while “it has never been UKIP’s policy that controlled immigration is not economically advantageous… what this study doesn’t do is to show what wealth our own people could have generated if they weren’t ‎subjected to wage-reducing-employment-displacing mass immigration from the EU. Nor does it truly take into account the opportunity costs to the UK of substituting en masse British working people with outsiders in their own country.” This distinction between “our own people” and “outsiders” is reflective of the cultural opposition to immigration felt by many voters. YouGov’s tracker consistently finds immigration at or near the top of the issues voters think is most important, and they recently found that 50 per cent thought Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was right to say some communities were being “swamped” by immigrants (he later withdrew the remark). That said, this report does give useful material for politicians who want to present a more realistic picture of EU benefits claimants. That may sound like a minor technical point, but it’s a topic that would be central to David Cameron’s proposed renegotiation of the terms of our EU membership up to 2017.

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