The claim:

“We’re not persecuting anyone…This is a new definition of persecution [which] means that you don’t have the absolute right to come from anywhere in the world and on day one of arriving in Britain, live off benefits.”

“Nearly half of those who come at the moment under the marriage route from outside the EU, are eligible and…get income related benefits, not just any benefits, but income related benefits…the vast majority.”
Immigration Minister Damian Green, The Daily Politics, BBC2, June 12, 2012

The background:

Home secretary Theresa May says that under her new immigration rules, migrants who come to the UK from outside the EU will “not become a burden on the taxpayer.”

They want to introduce a minimum income level of £18,600 for UK residents who want their non-EU other halves to come and join them, even if that other half happens to be really quite rich. It would exclude around 45 per cent of those who enter for family reasons, they say.

Damian Green has claimed that while helping the Tories with their stated aim of cutting net migration from the “hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands”, the plans will save taxpayers some £700m a year.

He’s said that the “vast majority” of those who come in from outside the EU for marital reasons and are eligible for benefits, go on to claim them.

In January a row over immigration figures flared  up . The department for work and pensions (DWP) released figures – which Mr Green stood by – claiming that of 371,000 arrivals to the UK who claimed benefits, more than 5,000 immigrants “with no right to claim state help”  were being paid them wrongly.

That led to a strongly-worded rebuke from statistics watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority, which accused the DWP of publishing “misleading” figures. FactCheck’s already explained the problem with their figures here.

This time, Mr Green declined to give specifics of how many migrants  who entered the UK on spousal visas went on to claim benefits, so FactCheck set out to find out.

The analysis:

FactCheck was surprised to hear from the immigration minister that it’s possible to come from anywhere in the world and get handouts within moments of setting foot on dry land.

So was  the DWP, according to  its  response.

We asked the DWP whether a non-EU national could come to the UK and claim for state help as soon as they arrive.

A spokesman said: “Anyone outside the EU or European Economic Area can not arrive in the UK and claim benefits from day one.”

He added that in order to be eligible for claims, including housing benefit, income support, council tax benefits, or child benefits, a habitual residence test needs to be passed first.

Contributory benefits such as jobseekers’ allowance, the contributed part of employment support allowance, incapacity benefit or state pensions,  can only be accessed if the individual has paid enough in national insurance.

And if someone were to come and live with their partner who’s already on benefits, does that autmatically make them eligible for their own benefits? “No,” was the answer from the DWP. “You still need to pass the habitual residency test.”

Mr Green claimed that of those entering for family reasons, nearly half were eligible for benefits and the vast majority of  those  claimed them.  FactCheck  asked the home office exactly how many people who entered the UK on marriage or spousal visas went on to claim benefits.  They didn’t have a ready answer.

There are  figures which tell us how many overseas nationals register for insurance numbers, including by region, and how many claimed for an out-of-work benefit within six months of registration.

But what they don’t tell us is how many of those people entered the UK through family immigration, whether as a spouse or dependant.  The DWP didn’t have any further breakdowns, so we went back to the home office.

They referred us to a Migration Advisory Committee report. That was the one that Ms May based her minimum £18,600 income level on.  The report told us that in 2010, 18 per cent of non-EU migrants came to the UK to join  family members – some 54,000 people. It was roughly the same the previous year, according to the report.

In the year to mid-2011, 83 per cent  of visas issued were for spouses or partners. Of them, two thirds were women and one third men.

It also showed that  back in 2004, less than eight per cent  of spouses brought other dependents – children or elderly relatives – with them, and  most of those who did brought only one.

But what the report doesn’t say is how many of those people went on to claim benefits. Or indeed, how many of the people they were coming to join were on benefits.

FactCheck asked the home office if they could see the figures upon which Mr Green based his claim, but they didn’t appear to be available.

The verdict:

FactCheck can’t find anything to stand up either of Mr Green’s claims.

The only way in which someone entering the UK could come and live off benefits from “day one” would be if their partner was happy to give them a slice of their own, should they be receiving any.

But as we don’t know how many people on benefits then go on to sponsor a partner, we  have no idea how many are prepared to do that.

Likewise, we can’t say whether the vast majority of those who enter for family reasons and  are entitled to handouts,  go on to claim them, although we’ve previously shown that  a smaller proportion of overseas nationals claim benefits than UK nationals.

In these times of austerity, Ms May  is, naturally,  looking at reducing the burden on the state – whether through non-EU nationals or through UK citizens.

The only problem is that we can’t find any way of saying how much that burden would be reduced by. We went back to the home office for clarification on Mr Green’s comments.

They hadn’t responded by the time we went to press.

By Fariha Karim