There is much cause to look askance at David Cameron’s plans to curb the benefits available to new migrants. Not because the measures themselves are inappropriate. It is not unreasonable to minimise the temptations of Britain’s welfare and healthcare provisions. A three-month delay on claiming out-of-work support, and a six-month limit on payments unless there is a “genuine” prospect of a job, are both justifiable. Even the proposal that homeless migrants be deported is not without merit, although enforcement will have to be closely monitored.
What is troubling, though, is that the changes are being presented as a response to the possible “influx” from Bulgaria and Romania in January, when transitional restrictions imposed when the two countries joined the EU are lifted.
The Prime Minister’s agenda is clear. With immigration replacing the NHS as Britain’s central neurosis, and with the UK Independence Party increasingly rampant on the political right, Mr Cameron hopes for a quick win with the public. But his job is to lead, not merely to follow.
Not only is there, for every analysis anticipating a flood of migrants in the new year, another predicting the merest trickle; the Coalition’s newly toughened stance can only be effective at the margins in any event. The overwhelming majority of migrants come to Britain in order to work, and do so. They will – rightly – be unaffected. Add to that the fact that only a few of the new rules will be in place by January, while others may yet prove contrary to EU law, and it is difficult to avoid the sense of a strategy rushed through to counter today’s headlines.
With feelings running high, and real concern about everything from cultural integration to the pressure on public services, there is a debate to be had about immigration. But it must be one that is informed by fact rather than hysteria. For all the scaremongering over benefits tourism (of which there is little), consistent evidence that migration has been a net positive for Britain is being drowned out. Mr Cameron’s reforms are no bad thing in themselves. But by setting them so firmly in the context of Bulgaria and Romania, he is fanning the flames of misconception when he should be dampening them.