Claim: “European Commission: UK’s 600,000 benefits tourists no problem”

The Sun newspaper on 21 October 2013 published a headline claiming that a European Commission report had revealed there to be around 600,000 “non-active” (unemployed) migrants in the UK (611,779 “non-active” EU migrants were living in Britain in 2012, up from 431,687 in 2006). The Telegraph newspaper added that this was costing the NHS alone a total of £1.5 billion. Similar reports emerged that prompted heated debate and rhetoric on the subject of “benefit tourism”. The Conservative backbench MP Douglas Carswell commented, “…the European project has debased and debauched the original, noble idea of the welfare state. These figures show that the wave of benefit migrants has become a tsunami of economic refugees fleeing the eurozone crisis to try to find jobs here”.

True or False?

The assertion that there are “600,000 benefit tourists” in the UK, and, that the EC argued they were “no problem”, is considered to be false. Moreover, The Sun newspaper eventually printed a retraction of it’s claims and admitted there was “no evidence” of 600,000 “benefit tourists” in the UK, and that Brussels had not said that this was “not a problem”.

FalseAnalysis

The EC report entitled ‘Impact of mobile EU citizens on national social security systems’, had contended that “EU citizens from [other] Member States use welfare benefits no more intensively than the host country’s nationals”. Furthermore, mobile EU citizens were less likely to receive disability and unemployment benefits in most countries studied”. The EC stated that the ‘non-active’ migrants included jobseekers as well as children, students, retired workers and people taking time out of the labour market to raise infants.

Presuming all of the 611,779 “benefits tourists” claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance, then based on a 2011 national figure of 1.49 million individuals (on unemployment benefit), this would represent 41% of the current total number of claimants. The EC report states that only 4% of Jobseeker’s Allowance [JSA] claimants in the UK are EU migrants (fewer than 38,000 were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, the report revealed).

The EC explicitly stated that their study demonstrated that economically “non-active” EU mobile citizens account for “a very small share” of the total beneficiaries. They stressed that the latest study’s results “complemented those of other studies that consistently show that workers from other Member States are net contributors to the public finances of the host country”. Their study also found that 64% of “economically inactive” EU migrants had previously worked in their current country of residence (64%), making it harder to identify systematic “benefit motivated” patterns of migration.

A report released on 5 November 2013, based on research conducted by University College London (UCL), supported the EC’s conclusion, arguing that “UK immigrants who arrived since 2000 are less likely to receive benefits and less likely to live in social housing than UK natives”.

These reports emerged despite the Home Office revealing that it had no figures on EU “welfare tourist” numbers, just days before the media began to publish stories on the same topic. One can ascertain from the facts that the prospect of receiving state benefits, should not be portrayed as the primary factor driving EU migration to the UK (as opposed to work/family related migration). European Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd, told the BBC that the UK had consistently declined to provide evidence to support its claims of “benefit tourism”. Furthermore, (under EU rules Member States unanimously agreed upon), those coming to the UK to look for employment already cannot claim benefits immediately. Only those “habitually resident” – which usually means having worked in the UK or being a direct family member of someone having so worked – can do so.

Commentary

The story reported in The Sun was immediately rejected by the European Commission and described as a “gross and irresponsible misrepresentation” of the facts. The Guardian also ran a story countering claims made by The Sun newspaper. The controversy was more acute due to the forthcoming legal challenge in the European Court of Justice by Laszlo Andor (the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion), against the UK. Andor aims to test the legality of a scheme that makes certain benefits available only to migrants from the EU who are “economically active”, ostensibly to make Britain less attractive to so-called “benefit tourists”.

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