Why David Cameron’s four-year benefits plan won’t reduce EU migration

Singing from his own hymn sheet. Number 10, CC BY-SA

The UK government’s proposal to prevent EU migrants from claiming welfare benefits for four years has run into new difficulties. The bid has been deeply unpopular with many European partners during David Cameron’s EU re-negotiations, and now the think-tank British Future claims it won’t achieve its purpose of cutting migration to the UK either. This is based on surveys of Polish migrants in Southampton on England’s south coast. British Future claims the policy would only have a “moderate impact” and “there is little to suggest it would be transformative”.

The think-tank’s findings chime with recent research I have been involved with. Our project, a joint venture between the universities of Glasgow and Swansea, collected interviews with 205 migrants, most of who came from eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004, including Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. The vast majority told us they were attracted to the UK not by welfare but by the chance to build a “normal life” for themselves and their families. Compared to their countries of origin, they thought the UK offered better employment opportunities, higher wages, and greater economic stability.

Awareness and attitudes

The people we interviewed tended to work in low-paid, low-skilled industries such as food processing, care and agriculture. Although most had been settled for two years or more, few had more than a basic awareness of the British welfare system. This explained why it was rare for them to have claimed jobseeker’s allowance (though as with the general population, migrants with children under 18 were slightly more likely to be in receipt of in-work benefits such as child tax credits).

Contrary to Cameron’s controversial claim that 43% of EU migrants claimed benefits within their first four years here, our interviewees described early periods of extreme poverty after seasonal or agency work dried up. Most had had little to no contact with state welfare agencies beyond getting a national insurance number. Indeed this is further cause for concern, given that migrants are one group due to be investigated by the UN as particularly vulnerable to the government’s wider welfare reforms. It all puts greater pressure on local charities and other voluntary services to fill the gaps.

Our interviewees also demonstrated attitudes to welfare that showed that lack of information was not the only reason they weren’t claiming. Many said they were surprised at the level of social support available when they moved to the UK. To paraphrase one common attitude: “We’ve come here to work, not to claim money”. A few even compared Britain’s welfare system with typical regimes in the former Eastern Bloc.

Step this way … David McKelvey, CC BY-SA

Interviewees often disapproved of benefits claimants. They saw the British system as too soft; discouraging people from full-time work; or providing too much support for those with drug or alcohol problems, for example. Some migrants repeated familiar British stereotypes about “benefits scroungers”. This tended to be the ones who had been in the UK longer, though we know that such perceptions of welfare claimants are also linked to changing perceptions of fairness in their own countries.

Healthcare and the NHS

Pressure on the NHS has often been used as an argument for cutting migration. Since EU migrants are often accused of contributing to the problem, it was interesting to explore the attitudes of our interviewees in this regard.

Many admired the fact that healthcare was prioritised in the UK. They said this gave them a greater sense of security, especially if they had children or had witnessed older relatives with serious illnesses who had struggled to pay for long-term medical treatment back home.

Having said that, many interviewees cited healthcare as one of the hardest things to adjust to. Most were used to being able to see a specialist at fairly short notice in their country of origin. Other frustrating differences included the fact that GPs were perceived to often prescribe paracetamol rather than something more powerful, and that dental treatment was much more expensive. Migrants often chose to visit their home country for non-urgent and even sometimes urgent medical treatment – particularly those who had arrived recently. In short, the majority of migrants we spoke to neither idealised the NHS nor saw it as an opportunity.

‘To get the healthcare you want, you need elbows like these.’ Conservative, CC BY-SA

So our research is very much in line with the claims from British Future. Removing state support from EU migrants will not reduce inward migration. It also goes against recent calls for greater numbers of migrant workers to support shortages in certain sectors, and will contribute to negative views of migrants and thus how they experience life in the UK. Given that they make a valuable contribution to this country’s economy, society and culture, the only sensible option is probably to drop the policy altogether.