14 Oct 2013

Benefit tourism: is it a myth?

Downing Street defends its crackdown on “benefit tourism” despite new evidence from the European Commission that it is “neither widespread nor systematic” in the UK. Is it merely a myth?

A report by the European Commission claimed that jobless EU migrants account for less than 5 per cent of those claiming social benefits in most EU states.

However, the report shows a 42 per cent rise in the number of non-economically active EU migrants in the UK – from 432,000 in 2006 to 612,000 last year.

These EU migrants include not only jobseekers, but students, pensioners, disabled people and stay-at-home spouses of workers.

The report also noted a 73 per cent rise in EU migrants coming to the UK to look for work between 2009-2011.

‘Positive’ contribution

But it found that migrants from the eastern European states which joined the EU in 2004 had made a “positive” contribution to the UK’s finances, paying 37 per cent more in taxes than they receive in services and benefits.

European Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor, who commissioned the report, said: “The study makes clear that the majority of mobile EU citizens move to another member state to work and puts into perspective the dimension of the so-called benefit tourism, which is neither widespread nor systematic.

“The commission remains committed to ensuring that EU citizens that would like to work in another EU country can do so without facing discrimination or obstacles.”

But the prime minister’s spokesman said there was “widespread and understandable concern” among the public that benefits were among the “pull factors” that persuade migrants to come to the UK.

He defended the government’s action against welfare tourism, including plans to tighten the “habitual residence test” which determines whether immigrants from the EU can claim benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, as well as an audit of the cost to the NHS of treating EU nationals.

“The government’s view very clearly is that changes do need to be made in this area,” said the spokesman.

“We don’t think the current system is working in the right way. That is why we have the changes that we are looking at across the board.

“There is widespread concern in this country and in other countries around issues that are in this area.”

EC report says 'benefits tourism' is not widespread in the UK (Image: Reuters)

Moving to work

The European Commission report found that, across the EU as a whole, European citizens living in different members states use welfare benefits “no more intensively than the host country’s nationals” and are less likely than native populations to receive disability and unemployment benefits in most countries studied.

The study found that the vast majority of EU nationals moving to another EU country do so to work, and that EU migrants aged over 15 in the UK were more likely to be in work than British nationals.

The report found “little evidence… to suggest that the main motivation of EU citizens to migrate and reside in a different member state is benefit-related as opposed to work or family-related”.

It concluded: “The share of non-active intra-EU migrants is very small, they account for a similarly limited share of SNCB (special non-contributory cash benefit) recipients and the budgetary impact of such claims on national welfare budgets is very low. The same is true for costs associated with the take-up of healthcare by this group.”

Mr Andor said: “The Commission recognises that there can be regional or local problems created by a large, sudden influx of people from other EU countries into a particular geographical area.

“For example, they can put a strain on education, housing and infrastructure. It therefore stands ready to engage with member states and, in particular, to help municipal authorities and others use the European Social Fund to its full extent.”