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.
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