Editorial: 'Benefit tourism' – real or hyped – must be tackled

Share
Related Topics

It might be tempting to interpret yesterday's hints from No 10 about changes to eligibility rules for benefits, and the Foreign Secretary's call on Sunday for an end to so-called "benefits tourism", as a response to the Conservative defeat in the Eastleigh by-election. If it is, ministers can be accused of magnifying a divisive issue in order to gain political capital, which is a dangerous and irresponsible game.

To deny that there is real public concern about a possible influx of Bulgarians and Romanians, however, would also be wrong. The gross miscalculation of the last government about how many "new" Europeans would come to Britain has fostered mistrust about what will happen next year, even though many of those wanting to come may well be already here. The Coalition is, rightly, refusing to publish projections – which may be less for fear of a backlash and more because it truly does not know.

But there is also a risk if politicians do not address the subject at all. And the longer ministers decline to tackle concern about welfare benefits for new migrants, the more likely it is that xenophobes will end up with the field to themselves. If ministers do tackle it, though, they must do so without alarmism and with frankness about the considerable positives as well as the possible negatives of migration.

The truth is that whatever recent EU migrants receive from the public purse is a tiny fraction of the overall UK benefits bill. As for fraud, "we" seem to be at least as good at it as "they" are. It must also be acknowledged that without the work of migrants many of our services could collapse. Successive studies have found that migrants contribute at least as much as, if not more than, they take out.

Such established facts, of course, will be of scant consolation to those who blame their wait at A&E, their high rent, or their child's overcrowded classroom on migration. And there are pockets of the country where this is true. Even where it is not, though, the Government has a duty to ensure that everyone plays by the rules and that those rules command public confidence. Here it has much work still to do.

First, it should be much clearer about the modest size of the overall benefits bill for migrants and the pluses that migrants have brought. Second – a move it appears to be considering – would be an increase in the time needed to establish "habitual residence" – the gateway to many benefits. The UK system depends on residence, not citizenship. But checks often appear either minimal or ineffective, creating an impression of unfairness.

Third, it should do more to compare UK rules with those elsewhere in the EU and make joint efforts to eliminate anomalies – such as the right to claim child benefit for children who live elsewhere. And fourth, there has to be a better system for ensuring that paid-for services are paid for. Again, the sums owed for medical treatment are small against the overall cost of running a hospital or GP practice. But GPs dislike asking people about their eligibility, while hospitals find recovering money more trouble than it is worth. All this perpetuates the myth that UK taxpayers are funding a global NHS.

In the longer term, the Government should also canvass views about a more contributory benefits system. Much current popular resentment reflects a feeling that there are people getting something for nothing, whether they are new migrants or those who have never worked. Over the years, the role of contributions has been reduced, and greater emphasis placed on need. This shift may now have run its course. A return to more contributory benefits might at once make the system seem fairer to all, without discriminating against new migrants.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Science versus religion in the three-parent baby debate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee