Cameron’s shameful, cynical speech about furriners coming over here to scrounge off our generous welfare system is just the latest manifestation of mainstream politicians pandering to UKIP and the racist right. The wretched Clegg’s been at it as well and Labour’s not above it either. In this poisonous atmosphere, even sections of the left are hamstrung by their anti-EU obsession. The Murdoch press and a former adviser to Frank Field (one of the most right wing Labour MPs of recent times) are not obvious sources of reason and enlightenment in this non-debate, but the following article came as a welcome breath of fresh air when it was published on March 8 in response to a speech by Iain Duncan Smith, acting as a warm-up act for Cameron’s performance today.
Naturally, I don’t agree with all of what follows, and wouldn’t personally have given either Field or Farage even the back-handed compliments (for “clarity”) that the author proffers, but overall it’s a pretty good piece. Actually, the bulk of it would make the basis of a good speech from a half-way principled Labour leader…
Benefit tourists are just political phantoms – It’s a myth that lazy foreigners are sponging off our welfare state. Our leaders ought to be straight with us. By Phillip Collins (THE TIMES, March 8 2013)
Some of the most testing problems in a democracy are the phantoms. When crime is falling but the people say it’s rising, is it prudent for politicians to declare the people to be in error? Is it ethical to pretend the phantom is real to show a popular touch? This week the spectre came dressed as “benefit tourism”, which in a histrionic performance in the House of Commons, Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, described as a “crisis.”
I would not suggest there are no foreign nationals in Britain claiming benefits in preference to work. I have no doubt that the official figures will miss some black market activity and fraud. But to suggest that Britain is in the grip of a crisis of lazy foreigners stealing our benefits is untrue, irresponsible and not worthy of a Cabinet Minister of good standing.
The very term “benefit tourism” suggests that people treat welfare states like holiday resorts. It is a claim that large numbers of migrants are taking advantage of the generosity of the welfare state and that is their motivation in coming to Britain. Not attracted by the higher wages on offer in Britain, the feckless East Europeans go to the trouble of leaving family and friends back home because — and only because — of the irresistible allure of British housing benefit.
This is an argument that carries with it enough rope to hang itself. But let’s demolish it with the facts as well. It is not true that EU nationals can walk into Britain and live instantly off the fat of the land. Anyone from the EU who wants to stay longer than three months has to be in work, seeking work or be able to show that they will not become a burden on public funds.
For this reason, there is no reliable evidence at all that this country has a serious problem with benefit tourism. Even if there were any serious studies that showed migration patterns are linked to benefit levels, which there aren’t, the rational tourist scrounger would go to France where there are no jobs and where unemployment benefits are much higher than they are in Britain and eligibility conditions are weaker. Yet not many Poles went to France because the French have this irritating habit of speaking French.
As it happens, it has been good news that the Poles came to Britain. People from the countries who joined the EU in 2004 are much less likely to be claiming out-of-work benefits than British-born people, even though more of them are of working age. Just over 1 per cent of Polish people who live in Britain claim unemployment benefit. The rest are working. We can object to the Poles on the grounds that they are foreigners taking British jobs that should be reserved for British workers but we cannot object to them on the grounds that they are bone idle.
It is not true, either, that migrants swamp public services. The Migration Advisory Committee showed that migrants, younger and healthier than the British-born, are net contributors in a country in which much of the spending goes on the elderly. Migrants as a whole pay 30 per cent more in taxes than they draw in the form of services. This didn’t stop the Prime Minister recently claiming, without deigning to offer evidence, that people were coming to Britain just to use the NHS. In fact, apart from emergencies, only EU citizens who are employed in the UK are entitled to treatment.
This is a situation that Mr Duncan Smith thinks is a crisis. In response, he proposes phantom solutions. He wants to make the habitual residency test a bit harder to pass. He wants to ban EU nationals from claiming taz credits, a benefit that will cease to exist if Mr Duncan Smith ever manages to flick the switch that turns on the Universal Credit. He wants British people to jump the housing queue, which will be easy as it already happens anyway.
This is all phantom politics designed to respond to anxieties heard on the streets of Eastleigh. The Tories are paranoid that they will lose voters to UKIP and Labour politicians worry that they were turfed out in 2010 for letting in too many immigrants. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, yesterday gave a speech on immigration which continued the recent Labour habit of apologising for everything they got right and ignoring everything they got wrong.
In this bogus argument only two politicians have distinguished themselves by their clarity. One is my first boss, the estimable Frank Field MP, who believes now, as he always has, that welfare should be based on contribution. Although most people claim to agree with Mr Field, almost nobody does, which is why in British politics he is the cat who walks alone. For example, people who earned more used to get more unemployment benefit. Mrs Thatcher abolished that in 1982. Gordon Brown’s tax credits extended means-testing and the big money-saver of the present austerity drive has been the time limit placed on the last contributory employment benefit. Welfare linked to contribution is not dead but it’s in intensive care.
This matters for benefits tourism. When welfare is funded out of the general pool, all taxpayers are eligible, whether they were born in Birkenhead or Bucharest. Until we dismantle the NHS and replace it with an insurance system, this will remain the case. Some countries have done so. In Scandinavia generous welfare benefits are mostly linked to contributions. In Britain we have chosen a different kind of welfare state and now we are moaning about the consequences of our choice.
The second politician to gain top marks for clarity is Nigel Farage. Confronted with the nut of benefit tourism, the UKIP leader wields a mighty sledgehammer. He would have us leave the EU. Whatever else that decision would do for Britain it would certainly free us of the scourge of Polish people doing house repairs.
Mr Field and Mr Farage can both deal with the phantom, but nobody else can. On the doorsteps of the nation, the rest of the political class has no option but to tell the truth. Benefit tourism is not a big issue.
No doubt the politician who dares to make this case will not be greeted with the immediate applause of the gallery. But he or she will command the respect that is due for daring, on spying a phantom that is scaring the people, to reassure them by looking straight through it and, by doing so, make it disappear.