Immigration is one of the most salient political topics of our time. You scarcely go a day without seeing a headline on the front of a tabloid newspaper or big news website on the issue, often depicting it in a negative light. Just today, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to restrict Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) to EU migrants beyond 6 months along with access to social housing for 2 years. According to a report last year by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, immigration is generally viewed as a problem in the UK, with approximately 75% of people (1) believing that levels should be reduced so on the surface, Cameron’s proposals may look like a good idea. However, things are never as straightforward as they might first seem in politics and often the reality of an issue might run completely contrary to our collective perceptions. Using some facts and figures, I’ve set out to establish whether immigrant exploitation of social housing and benefits really is that much of an issue, and whether Cameron’s proposals will really make that much of a difference.
Are immigrants taking housing?
The Prime Mininster’s first proposal, as highlighted by the BBC, is to deny economic migrants (for they are a completely different group of people to asylum seekers or illegal immigrants) access to social housing for at least two years (although the wording of the article is unclear: “a social housing applicant would have to live in an area for between two and five years before going on the waiting list” implies that the proposal may also apply to British residents as well) under the assumption that this will remove “any expectation that new migrants can expect the British taxpayer to give them a home on arrival”. I’m suspicious of the degree to which such an expectation actually exists, has anyone ever actually surveyed prospective economic migrants as to what they actually come to the UK for? “Do you come for benefits? Or do you come for work?” My suspicion is that it is actually the latter. More crucially though, by the figures cited within in the article itself 9% of new council lettings have been given to foreign nationals(An ONS publication from 4 years ago gives the similar figure of 8% for England (2)) when those not born in the UK actually make up about 13% of the UK’s entire population (3). If we go by this data alone, an immigrant is actually less likely to apply for social housing than a UK national. Technically, “foreign national” includes refugees (asylum seekers who have been granted permission to stay in the UK) as well, so this would reduce the number of migrants coming over here with the intention to work living in social housing further.
Housing a big problem in the UK, a big problem, there are 1.85 million people on council housing waiting lists alone (4), yet according to research by the fantastic Facebook page “Keep Calm Britain – just the actual facts” only 308,000 of council houses in England currently have tenents of foreign nationality (5). On practical terms then, reducing immigrant access to social housing will do little to address the country’s chronic shortage of social housing¸ as the afore mentioned page has pointed out, the 1.12 million council houses sold off to the private sector over to past decade (6) is a much bigger contributor to lack of council housing for the British people.
Coming here for benefits?
On practical terms, immigrant access to housing appears to be nowhere near as urgent in issue as the media makes out, yet on ideological grounds, the argument can be made that “we shouldn’t provide welfare to those who have never paid into the system”. This is a legitimate argument, but again, how often does this actually happen in reality? This ties in with the Prime Minister’s second proposal: to limit immigrants’ access to benefits, specifically, Jobseekers’ Allowance after 6 months. Again, the impact of this proposal needs to be looked at in context: statistically a foreign born national has been estimated to be less than half as likely to claim benefits as someone who was born in this country.(7) Also, although the individual rules are complicated, economic migrants generally are not entitled to any benefits unless they have already settled and worked for some time within the country anyway (8). Further still, a report by the TUC found that immigrants as a whole make a net contribution of £2.5bn to the public purse (9), so if we are to argue that immigrants should contribute to the system before claiming any benefits, in pragmatic terms, they clearly already are.
So what’s the impact of these proposals?
A final point to note is, that judging by the BBC article, the Prime Minister’s proposals seem to focus specifically on Jobseekers’ Allowance, a drop in the ocean of public spending, making up only 3% of the entire benefits bill (10). Going by all of this evidence, it appears the government’s proposals are in reality a shave around the edges in regards to the ways that economic migration affects our economy and public services, a far cry from any sort of real “crackdown”. As far as I can see the proposals are going to have little effect on the actual British people, they will do next to nothing to reduce the benefits bill or alleviate the national council housing shortage. Their impact is going to be limited to a tiny minority of migrants who either do try to abuse the system (which is a good thing) or who genuinely fall on misfortune (which is not such a good thing) and if we extrapolate from the fact that all benefit fraud, both by immigrants and those born here, has sat at the miniscule level of 0.6-0.8% (11) over the past 5 years, it’s more likely going to be the latter.
In a future post I hope to provide a broader critique of why the media and politicians place so much emphasis on immigration at the expense of other important political issues despite that fact that, as demostrated here, fears of immigrants draining the UK economy are strongly overstated.
- The Migration Observatory, UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Levels of Concern
- Communities and Local Government, Housing in England 2007-2008 (p .49)
- ONS, 2011 Census: Key Statastics for England and Wales, 2011 (1st paragraph)
- Communities and Local Government, Local Authority Housing Statastics 2011-2012 (p. 3)
- Housing in England, p. 49
- Local Authority Housing Statistics, p. 6
- Department for Work and Pensions, Nationality at point of National Insurance Number Registration of DWP Benefit Claiments, Jan 2012
- Eden District Council, Migrant Workers
- Trade Union Congress, The Economics of Migration (p. 18)
- Institute for Fiscal Studies, A Survey of the UK Benefit System, (p. 7)
- Full Fact, Is Benefit Fraud at an All Time High (final paragraph)
Many thanks to the “Keep Calm Britain: Just the Actual Facts” for making the facts and statistics presented in this article so, so much easier and quicker to source.