Today’s (28.11) speech from the Prime Minister has made a pitch for a new tough approach on EU migrant access to welfare, but it has taken us further away from the evidence-based debate on immigration that we need.
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David Cameron’s speech on EU migration, delivered earlier Friday, was as hotly awaited as any political speech in recent months. In the wake of two recent UKIP wins in by-elections and in the run-up to the May 2015 General Election, the Conservatives were widely expected to punch back with a bold statement which laid out what a Tory government would push for in terms of EU immigration reform.
In the event the speech was a clever piece of political positioning. The PM rejected the temptation to introduce the more lurid proposals hoped for by some Conservative Euro-sceptic backbenchers, such as emergency brakes on EU migration and caps on numbers. Instead he chose a relatively measured tone which aimed his pitch to the public straight down into the centre-ground, and was at pains to reject an overtly anti-immigration stance. This was a call for the continuation of EU free movement but with ‘tough approach to welfare’ – in other words, a UK within which EU migrants can still come here, but have their eligibility for state support significantly scaled-back.
As such Cameron has received plaudits for having apparently made a legitimate attempt to address concerns firmly planted in the public mind about EU migration and access to welfare. Elements of his pitch have been openly supported by organisations ranging from Labour, the Lib Dems and a number of thinktanks. But there has seemed to be little enthusiasm for defending the principle of welfare entitlement for EU migrant workers on the grounds of basic fairness…
For our part, MRN has a number of objections to the content of Cameron’s speech – here are three of them:
1. It does nothing to move us towards a more evidence-based and fair immigration debate
Yes, the tone of this speech was measured, but its implications were not. By putting EU migrant access to benefits at the heart of his speech Cameron has given credence to one of the biggest myths about EU migration – that there is a significant take-up of welfare benefits by this group of workers.
All the statistics show otherwise. We know that less than 10% of all EU migrants claim any kind of welfare, which includes in-work benefits for those working in low-wage jobs. EU migrants contribute £20 billion more in taxes than they take out in any kind of welfare or social security. According to Open Europe, as of February 2014, only 2.5% of total unemployment benefits claimants were EU migrants. Government data for 2013 suggests that only 6.4% of workers claiming tax credits in the UK are from the EU. And just four per cent of new social housing lettings in England in 2012-13 were to people from the European Union – almost all went to people who have been here for five years or longer. The evidence all points in the same direction, but the message sent out to the public today has been the opposite.
The truth is that we have to put this down as yet another missed opportunity to reframe the public conversation about EU migration and advance proposals which could allay fears and point to a more positive engagement with the issue. We needed to hear more about how, if some EU migration creates pressures in certain areas or on certain services, they could be tackled. How could local public service providers or authorities better support local integration? Why are so many EU migrants stuck in low-paid work that British people don’t want to do? Cameron made a brief and welcome acknowledgement that more resources would be needed in these areas, but otherwise allowed his proposals to centre on the more hyped area of welfare support.
2. These policies would create a cohort of workers on poverty wages
A centrepiece of this speech was the proposal to cut in-work benefits, with the claim that this will deter EU migrant workers from coming to the UK in the future. Maybe some will be put off coming, but there are real grounds for concern that a ‘crackdown’ on EU migrant benefits will also create a new cohort of vulnerable workers in the UK. These workers will be able to come and do the lowest-paid jobs in sectors with very little regulation, whilst paying their taxes but with no safety net of welfare support whatsoever.
Many EU migrants are coming here do low-paid but vital jobs like looking after our sick and elderly in care homes. Cutting protections for those in low-wage work would tip them into vulnerability, forcing them to live on incomes between 30% and 60% less than their British counterparts. There would be no complaint from exploitative employers who would find they now have an EU migrant workforce which is desperate to work long hours and accept all manner of ill-treatment if it will help them to make a liveable wage. Instead of accepting this proposal, we should be demanding that the Government introduce wages for all workers at the bottom end of the labour market which are adequate to live on, rather than requiring a top-up from the welfare system in order to make them decent.
3. This speech will do little to solve the public’s disquiet about immigration.
It seems unlikely that Cameron’s speech will do anything to ease public concerns about immigration. We know that there is no magic bullet on this issue, particularly because of its embeddedness in wider issues relating to the economy, education, housing and welfare. But today is a reminder that immigration is, as ever, vulnerable to being held hostage to politics. Short-term promises and pledges – such as today’s suggestion that EU migration can be substantially reduced as a result of these reforms – will in the end do little to build confidence if there is no real delivery. And we think it unlikely that today’s proposals would substantially reduce EU migration for the simple reason that EU migrants do not come to the UK to claim benefits.
Instead, we expect that the main outcome of this speech will be to build the pressure around today’s whipping boy – EU migrants – while continuing to deflect attention from the wide range of policies which are embedding social injustice and inequality across our society. It might be that for the time being Mr Cameron has won a point or two, but with real problems stacking up now and into the foreseeable future around the position of vulnerable migrants, we see no reason for anyone else to celebrate it.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Ruth Grove-White is MRN’s Policy Director, responsible for developing the network’s responses to Government policy and legislation, leading on MRN parliamentary work and supporting the Director in representing the organization.