Friday 20 January 2012

Migrants, benefits and public services: what does the new research evidence tell us?

I am early in the office today - 7.30 am - and the cleaners are just finishing up.  Not surprisingly, they clearly were not born in the UK (Brazil? Romania?), and I think it is reasonable to assume (we use a reputable firm) that they are paying tax and not claiming benefits. But of course anecdotal evidence of this sort proves nothing, so what are we to make of this article, by Chris Grayling and Damien Green, that 371,000 migrants are claiming out of work benefits?

Without seeing the detailed research, it is difficult to say, but there is some more detail in the BBC's report here, headlined "Benefits being claimed by more than 370,00 migrants."  It says that 371,000 people, out of a total of 5.5 million, who are claiming working-age benefits, were non-UK nationals when they first registered for a National Insurance number; of these 258,000 were from outside the European Economic Area. Of this latter group, 54% are now British nationals, so presumably the rest are not.

Meanwhile, for comparison, we can also look at the Labour Force Survey. This says that, of the total number of people in work (about 29 million), some 4 million were born abroad.  Of these 2.7 million were born outside the EEA.  And of these, 1.3 million are not (yet) British citizens.

So, summing up these numbers in very rough percentages:

  • migrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of out-of-work claimants;
  • migrants from outside the EEA represent about 9-10% of all workers, but about 5% of out-of-work claimants
  • foreign nationals from outside the EEA represent about 4.5% of all workers, but a little over 2% of out-of-work benefit claimants.

This is hardly surprising, for structural and demographic reasons:

  • many migrants come here primarily to work, so are likely to be over-represented in the workforce relative to out-of-work benefits
  • initially migrants are less likely to be entitled to benefits; it takes time to build up entitlement to contributory benefits like Jobseekers' Allowance, and to get means-tested benefits you usually need to establish permanent residency
  • their age structure and other demographics probably make them less likely to claim benefits
Indeed, NIESR research published last week, undertaken for the Government's Migration Advisory Committee, looked at migrants' demands on education and health services, and came to a very similar conclusion: "NIESR research shows that non-European economic and student migrants impose costs on UK public services that are small both relative to the total cost of these services and to the share of these groups in the population as a whole."

So, as a result of our research for the MAC and the government's own research, we now know that, looking at the main elements of state spending - benefits, health and education (nobody's looked at pensions yet, the last big chunk, but the story is likely to be the same, only more so) - migrants impose less than proportionate costs on the state.  This is consistent both with common sense and previous research, but is now much more firmly evidenced.

The only question that remains for me is why today's research was not reported this way. Surely this was a great opportunity for Ministers - while not minimising the problems, either of the welfare system or the immigration system - to put some of the myths that surround this subject to rest, by pointing out that it's simply false to claim that migrants, overall, are a disproportionate burden on the welfare state or public services? And why was the BBC's headline "Benefits being claimed by more than 370,00 migrants" - a meaningless number, like all such numbers, out of context - rather than "Migrants less likely than Britons to claim out of work benefits"?  

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