During the leaders debates before the last general election, David Cameron declared that
he wanted to make immigration a non-issue and he would go about it by reducing immigration numbers from hundreds of thousands a year to tens of thousands a year. He hasn’t succeeded in the
second objective — more than half a million people arrived here in 2010, only 30 per cent of whom were from the EU — and he most certainly hasn’t succeeded in the first. At least
if the reaction to today’s revelations about immigrants on benefits is anything to go by.
Chris Grayling, minister for employment, and Damian Green, immigration minister, wrote an article for today’s Telegraph to reveal that 371,000 immigrants were claiming
benefits as of last February — it sparked a lively debate (at the time of writing there were 2,494 comments on the paper’s website on the story, the nature of which you can imagine).
As the ministers observed, most of the people claiming benefits were entitled to do so and of 9,000 claimants from outside the EU investigated by officials, just two per cent may be making false
claims. It’s not a big percentage in the great scheme of things. As the BBC hastened to make clear on its website, that meant immigrants — or people who were foreign nationals when they
first arrived here — made up 6.5 per cent of the total of 5.5 million claimants, proportionately fewer than resident Brits. And as the BBC also made clear, half of the claimants then went on
to obtain British citizenship or indefinite leave to remain.
I’d buy into the argument myself that if just 125 people from abroad are fraudulently claiming benefits, that’s not a terribly big deal, though I’d be a little surprised if that
were the final figure. Then again, as the ministers observe, it’s remarkable that no-one took the trouble to align immigration figures and welfare claims until now. It’s hard to have a
decent debate about welfare tourism without numbers.
It would be interesting to get a reaction from Vince Cable, Lib Dem Business Secretary, to the statistics. He has waged a spirited campaign against a cap on immigration, on the grounds that this
would deprive British industry of a reserve of talent which would otherwise migrate to more liberal and welcoming nations. He speaks warmly about the university professors and IT specialists that
British institutions may not be able to bring here because of a cap on non-EU nationals. What he ought perhaps to acknowledge is that this undoubted body of talent which has enriched the polity
isn’t wholly representative of the half million people who come to Britain every year; there may in fact be quite as many welfare claimants as university professors among them.
That figure of half a million — actually, it was 591,000 last year — is under-publicised because the only figure that matters politically is net migration, viz, the number of people
coming here less the numbers of Brits leaving; that amounted amounted to a quarter of a million, or 252,000, in 2010. And it’s net migration that David Cameron promised to reduce.
But the welfare claimant figures are worth scrutinising because they tell us something about the only figure that matters in this debate, viz, the number of people coming to Britain from outside
the EU. Of the 371,000 claiming benefits, the majority are from outside the European Union, though the ministers don’t give percentages or any indication whether we’re talking Somalis
or Romanians. Poles are, then, unsurprisingly, more likely to be working than on the dole. And that’s in line with the fact that non-EU nationals also make up 70 per cent of overall
The other interesting fact tucked away in the report is that more than half the 371,000 claiming benefits had since their arrival acquired British citizenship, or the indefinite leave to remain.
That deserves close scrutiny; it may tell us about the Government’s overall failure to control immigration. Because, as Frank Field and Nicholas Soames MPs made clear in their study of immigration policy, there has been a tendency for the right to work in Britain to come with a near-automatic right to
citizenship; that doesn’t happen in Germany.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the debate has been the world-class chutzpah exhibited by Chris Bryant, the Labour immigration minister. He says the situation will only get worse due to lax
border controls, rising migration and increasing unemployment. ‘Tory ministers are resorting to rhetoric and misinformation to hide the reality of their failures on immigration and
unemployment. Far from strengthening immigration control the Government is returning fewer illegal migrants and net migration has continued to increase.’
Ahem. Some 3.2 million people came here during Labour’s time in office, that is, between 1997 and 2009 — and that’s the gross figure. (The rough estimate for illegal immigration
during the period is between half a million and a million.) During this time, about half a million National Insurance Numbers were given out to East Europeans and some 300,000 people came here from
the old West European EU states, making roughly 800,000 in total. In other words nearly two and a half million people came to the UK from non-EU states under the last government. I’d say that
on this one, Messrs Miliband and Bryant should lie low.