Welfare tourism and evidence-based policy
Back in June, the Home Secretary called for penalties for migrants from other EU countries who are “abusing the welfare state”. Her biggest headlines came from her claim that they were “placing an unacceptable burden on our schools, our hospitals, our social security systems and our local communities.” The headlines she got must have been very gratifying, with stories in the Telegraph¸ Mail, Star and Evening Standard.
We’re so used to stories like this (“Unemployed Eat Babies” etc) that the lack of evidence for this claim went unremarked here. But it seems that the European Commission still believes that mere assertion of one right-wing nostrum or another doesn’t count as proof. Behind the scenes, they have kept asking the Home Office for the evidence on which Mrs May’s allegation is based. And last week, Whitehall had to admit that it doesn’t exist – not only are there no figures for the number of EU citizens committing benefit fraud in the UK, the DWP doesn’t even collect figures for the number claiming benefits – whether honestly or fraudulently.
Her Majesty’s Government was left with the Sir Humphrey-like line that “we consider that these questions place too much emphasis on quantitative evidence.” (I wish I’d thought of that in O level maths!)
The Commission – sensibly – hasn’t just relied on evidence from HMG. They’ve also commissioned their own report on benefit tourism and health tourism. Of course, this was shown to member state governments in advance, which gave the DWP press office their chance. Based on their selective leaking, British newspapers then told us that the report showed that 600,000 unemployed EU citizens are living in Britain.
Well, what did the report actually show? Firstly, the talk of “600,000 unemployed EU citizens” may have over-stated the case a little; the report actually said that
“of 1.44 million people claiming JSA in 2011, 8.5% of these were non-UK nationals, of which less than 38,000 claimants were from EU countries (approximately 2.6%) and less than 13,000 (approximately 0.9%) were claims by A8 nationals” [Eastern Europeans].
[Emphasis added]. The report did talk about 600,000 EU nationals who weren’t in employment but that includes, among others, retired people, carers and others with family responsibilities and students – the UK had more than 166,000 students from other European countries, most of whom would not have been claiming benefits of any kind. If we took the same approach to everyone in the UK, whatever their nationality, and counted everyone over 16 not working as unemployed, we would reach a total of more than 21 million! Citizens of other EU countries living in the UK are actually more likely to be in employment than UK: 76.9 per cent, compared to 72.0 per cent, according to the latest labour market figures.
Most of our non-working EU migrants have worked here in the past – in 2011, just 36 per cent had never worked in the UK before. And remember, we’re not the only country with non-working migrants – the report notes that “one out of three migrating EU pensioners in Spain comes from the United Kingdom”, two thirds of UK citizens in Spain are either under 16 or over 64.
In truth, the report bears very little relation to the picture painted by the newspapers. Our government may be chumps when it comes to evidence-based policy making, but they can always rely on world-class distortion to see them through.