Immigrants and benefits – why David Cameron’s plans are dangerous
In today’s Financial Times the Prime Minister has announced (pay wall) benefit cuts targeted on migrants from the European Union (the story in The Times is clearer and less ambiguous – but also behind a paywall). The biggest cut is the topping and tailing of claims: people won’t get out-of-work benefits for the first three months after arriving in this country and those who qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance will lose it after six months unless they can prove they have a “genuine prospect of employment”.
In addition, new EU arrivals will be banned from Housing Benefit and there will be a minimum income test for people applying for other benefits, like Income Support. On top of all this, EU migrants found begging or sleeping rough will be deported for a minimum of a year. The UK Independence Party has, quite reasonably, said that these measures show they are “setting the agenda”. Having set the agenda, they are now pushing it further, insisting that these proposals are “too generous”.
There is every chance that UKIP will continue to dictate the direction of change, with the Liberal Democrats hailing the PM’s plans as “sensible and reasonable.” The Opposition has chimed in, claiming that it was all their idea in the first place.
Insofar as the Prime Minister puts forward arguments to back up these policy proposals they amount to this: “Since 2004, we have witnessed the biggest migration in Europe outside wartime” and “Britain is not acting alone in taking these steps.” This hardly adds up to a justification for proposals that will inevitably lead to hardship for workers who find that their pay isn’t enough to live on. The PM claims that “failures in immigration policy were closely linked to welfare and education” and you’d expect that this would be the point at which he explains why these cuts are necessary. But it’s at just this point that his argument becomes strangely irrelevant:
If it does not pay to work, or if British people lack skills, that creates a huge space in our labour market for people from overseas to fill. You cannot blame people for wanting to come here and work hard; but the real answer lies in training our own people to fill these jobs.
How he justifies benefit cuts aimed at people who “come here and work hard” isn’t apparent. An argument based on “welfare tourism” would fit here, but he fails to make it. Which is just as well; as I pointed out last month, newspaper headlines about people from the EU coming to Britain to commit benefit fraud are based on statistics that don’t exist. Despite claims that there are huge numbers coming to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance, the correct figure is under 38,000.
Indeed, EU migrants are actually much less likely to claim benefits than natives. According to DWP figures, in February this year, 6.7% of working age non-UK nationals (at the time they first registered for a National Insurance Number) were claiming a DWP working age benefit compared to 16.4% of working age UK nationals.
But the most important reason for opposing these plans is simply how horrible they are.
In the trade union movement, we are already concerned about proposals to introduce a 7 day wait for eligibility for Universal Credit – which will be on top of the design of Universal Credit, which will pay benefits four weeks in arrears. If the government implements today’s plans it won’t stop the continued demonisation of migrant workers – as the UKIP response indicates, that debate will move on to something even more extreme. But if these cuts take place it will show that a three month wait and a time limit are options for the next round of “welfare reform”.
These cuts are a threat to all workers, not just migrants. We think having to wait five weeks for your money (longer, if there’s an administrative cock-up) is outrageous.
A three month wait could be a nightmare.