The background

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Employment Minister Chris Grayling and Immigration Minister Damian Green flagged up some new research from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on the nationality of benefit claimants.

The report estimates that there are 371,000 people claiming benefits in Britain who were non-UK nationals when they registered for a National Insurance number after arriving in this country.

In a radio interview, Employment Minister Chris Grayling denied he was “scaremongering” about Britain’s benefits system but added:”There’s a lot of talk about it being a magnet for other parts of the world…what I’m very keen to prevent is benefit tourism.”

What do the figures actually show?

Of the 5.5 million people of working age who are currently claiming benefits, 371,000 are foreign-born. That’s 6.4 per cent of the total number of people on benefits.

That means 6.6 per cent of working age non-UK nationals currently get a state handout, as opposed to 16.6 per cent of British nationals.

DWP took a random sample of 9,000 people from the 371,000 – only choosing those from outside the European Economic Area – and found that most (54 per cent) had become British citizens since arriving here. A further 29 per cent had been granted indefinite leave to remain.

Three quarters of people in the sample were traced by the UK Border Agency. Some 98 per cent of those were found to have the right immigration status consisting with claiming benefits legitimately.

What don’t the figures show?

They don’t tell us how many of the estimated 371,000 have paid their own way.

The number includes people who entered the country as long ago as 1975, and it cover some benefits, like Jobseekers’ Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance, which are sometimes “contributory”.

In other words, in some cases they are only payable to people who have built up a minimum level of National Insurance contributions through work.

So some of the 371,000 might have made substantial contributions to the exchequer through tax and National Insurance deductions for many years, and only claimed benefits for a short time.

How many people are in this position? DWP doesn’t know. A spokesman said: “Separate figures for income and contributory based elements are not available.”

It’s not even the case that those 371,000 people are all claiming “out-of-work” benefits, contrary to several press reports.

In other words, some of the people claiming these benefits may be doing some work. You can work 16 hours a week and still claim Jobseekers’ Allowance, for example, and you can earn up to £100 a week after tax and still get Carer’s Allowance.

So some of these 371,000 people could be contributing to the Exchequer through tax and National Insurance while they are claiming some benefits, offsetting the burden on the state.

How many? DWP doesn’t know. A spokesman told us: “The data sets don’t allow us to identify how many cases this might be happening in.”

Are large numbers of migrants getting benefits they’re not entitled to?

There’s no evidence of that here. Some 2 per cent of the 9,000 sample (180 people) could be defrauding the taxpayer. But that hasn’t been proved yet.

On the other hand, there is a question mark over a total of 27 per cent of the sample (including those who couldn’t be traced). Mr Grayling says more work needs to be done to get to the bottom of how many benefits cheats might be in the sample.

Are more migrants claiming benefits than ever before?

Not according to these DWP figures, which show the number of overseas nationals who register for a national insurance number every year and then go on to claim benefits within six months.

Just over 26,000 people fell into that category in 2009/10, the latest year for which figures are available.

As a percentage, that was a slight increase on the year before (4.6 per cent compared to 3.7), but far less than the 43,000 people or 12.5 per cent who were signing on within six months of getting their national insurance number in 2002/03.

The percentage has increased since a low of 2.9 per cent in 2006/07 and 2007/08, presumably reflecting rising unemployment since the start of the economic downturn.

Is there evidence of “benefit tourism”?

If we’re talking about people coming to Britain who don’t have any intention of finding work and want to live off benefits instead, there’s nothing to back that up either.

In fairness to Mr Grayling, he admitted as much himself, saying: “We’ve yet to establish the full picture. It may be that there isn’t a problem right now.”

If large numbers of people were coming here with the intention of staying on benefits for long periods, we would reasonably expect that to show up in a long-term study. Do foreign-born claimants tend to remain on the dole for longer than other groups?

DWP doesn’t know. A spokesman said: “This is a snapshot piece of analytic work. Data tracking benefit durations over time is not available.”

As we pointed out in a previous FactCheck, benefit rules, strengthened by the government’s own recent reforms, are supposed to make it impossible for anyone to claim benefits for long periods without making an honest effort to find work.

Dr Scott Blinder from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory told FactCheck the high proportion of people with British citizenship or leave to remain could be a sign of how tough the rules already are.

Most migrants have to wait for substantial periods of time before they get to claim benefits. Many have to wait for years for the privileged immigration status that entitles them to DWP payouts, making “tourism” is an unlikely scenario.

By Patrick Worrall