Cameron's Focus on Benefits Tourists Is Muddled And Unlikely to Work

The storm over Britain’s membership of the European Union has all but arrived. Predictably, given the Conservative majority, David Cameron has committed to an in/out referendum to be held before the end of 2017. Eurosceptic MPs, openly anti-EU parties and tabloids are beginning to swirl like so many dark clouds, pushing for a British exit.

Of course, David Cameron understands the economic costs of leaving the EU. Accordingly, he is putting a plan into action to reduce the likelihood of this. To placate the Eurosceptics within his slim parliamentary majority, Cameron has raised the possibility of a new relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights. He has also moved quickly to canvass support in Paris, Berlin and other European capitals for proposed reforms that will supposedly make it more palatable for Britain to remain a member of the EU. One of the key such reforms surrounds the right to curb welfare benefits and tax credits for EU migrants.

Immigration remains a live issue in post-election Britain, and membership of the EU continues to be seen as an obstacle to Britain’s ability to control its borders.

The Conservative proposal is therefore to have a four-year curb on in-work benefits – such as tax credits – for employed EU migrants, while those who are unemployed will be entitled to no welfare benefits at all.

At its heart the welfare curb issue is one of ethics, not numbers

Clearly this is primarily designed to reduce net migration figures by making Britain less attractive to EU citizens. Until now, the proposal has been pitched as a way to combat so-called “benefit tourists” – people who come to Britain solely to claim welfare benefits. However, benefit tourism is something of a myth. Fewer than 5% of EU migrants claim Jobseekers’ Allowance, while fewer than 10% claim other working-age benefits.

At its heart, though, the welfare curb issue is one of ethics, not numbers. Indeed the question is: should EU migrants who have worked for a short time in Britain, or not worked at all, be entitled to the same welfare benefits as natives?

This is critically important because it raises two seemingly incompatible visions of the modern European welfare state.

On the one hand, there is the ‘universalist’ argument. On this view, the welfare state can be seen as embodying the idea that anyone, no matter how much they have paid into the pot, is entitled to support from the state when times are hard. On this logic, who’s to say that just because someone living in Britain is from another country that they too shouldn’t be entitled to help when they need it?Focusing on “benefit tourists” ignores the statistics and merely provides scare tacticsOn the other, there is the ‘conservative’ argument that has its roots in the thought of Edmund Burke. On this view, the welfare state can be seen as embedded in custom and tradition. The preservation of these ideas promote the requisite collective solidarity and trust to ensure that people are willing to give up a portion of what they earn for the common good. The great number of new arrivals to the UK over the past fifteen years, some of whom draw on the welfare state for support, could be viewed as a break from the tradition and trust required to make the welfare state function properly. In short, it is unjust to take welfare benefits from a welfare state neither you nor your family has meaningfully contributed to. To allow this is to compromise the whole idea of the welfare state.

Cameron’s challenge is to reconcile these two visions.

But his current proposals are not convincing. Focusing on “benefit tourists” ignores the statistics and merely provides scare tactics to rally support at home. After all, those who come to the UK are largely of working age, healthy and productive. In many cases they don’t settle for long enough to place any real demands on the welfare budget. Where they do draw on benefits – for instance, when they marry or have children – it is likely they will have been in Britain for more than four years; above the threshold that Cameron is seeking to impose.

Ironically, Cameron could find his arguments thrown back in his face given that, according to some reports, there are more British citizens claiming benefits in rich EU countries than there are EU citizens from those countries claiming benefits in the UK.

the four-year proposal will alienate too many of Britain’s European partnersInstead of curbing welfare benefits, Cameron could choose to take the pressure off the state altogether and enforce an increase in the minimum wage so that the private sector, which arguably benefits the most from immigration, shoulders more of the burden. But that is unlikely happen.

More realistically, Cameron should reduce the four-year welfare benefit curb to two years. As it stands, the four-year proposal will alienate too many of Britain’s European partners. It may also have a negative impact on the economy.

Indeed, though the UK has increased its employment rate, the majority of the jobs created have been low-paid and low-skilled, based on zero-hours contracts. If we want EU migrants to do some of these jobs, we must be sure that they can support themselves in bad times as well as good. If the private sector is unwilling to do this, the Government must step in.

A two-year welfare benefit curb for EU migrants would be a better way to target the worst excesses of benefit tourism while reconciling the conflicting principles upon which the welfare state is built: the universalism which claims that everyone is entitled to welfare benefits no matter where they come from, and the conservatism which claims that custom and tradition must be maintained in order to preserve the trust required for the welfare state to work.

More about the author

About the author

As well as a regular contributor on politics for Disclaimer, Liam has written for the New Statesman, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post, When Saturday Comes and the Sunday Express.

He is currently back at school completing an MA at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.

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