EU migrants have been applying in smaller numbers for out-of-work welfare benefits in the UK following a tightening of entitlement tests, according to a new report that also highlights how claims by these people are a small proportion of the total.
So-called benefit tourism was a controversial topic in the run-up to the UK referendum on EU membership last year, with those concerned about immigration asserting that significant numbers of Europeans were drawn to Britain by its generous welfare system.
But a report by the Department for Work and Pensions highlights how migrants from the European Economic Area — which as well as EU member states includes Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein — are only a small proportion of those applying for out-of-work benefits, and that their claims are declining in number.
Many experts have consistently rejected the idea that welfare benefits are a significant “pull factor” for migrants, saying most Europeans come to the UK to work.
Only 2.4 per cent of those claiming out-of-work benefits in 2013-14 were EEA migrants, and the figure declined to 1.9 per cent in 2015-16, according to the Department for Work and Pensions’ report.
The number of EEA migrants claiming these benefits fell from 177,000 in 2013-14 to 119,000 in 2015-16.
The decline in claims reflects how the coalition government tightened the entitlement tests in 2013 and 2014.
For example, a new test was introduced in 2014 for EEA migrants to prove they had a “genuine prospect of work” in order to claim unemployment benefit for longer than six months.
“In the period following the introduction of the [entitlement] measures . . . there was a 47 per cent fall in the number of new [unemployment benefit] claims by EEA nationals,” said the Department for Work and Pensions’ report.
It acknowledged that the number of UK nationals claiming unemployment benefit had fallen between 2013-14 and 2015-16, but said the declines in applications by EEA migrants “have been faster”.
Experts said the coalition government’s efforts to tighten EEA migrants’ entitlement to out-of-work benefits had succeeded.
“It’s clear the measures achieved their intended objective,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London.
“Those who said that it was perfectly possible, legally and administratively, to take measures within the current EU legal framework . . . to address issues of ‘benefit tourism’ or ‘abuse’ by recently arrived EEA nationals were correct — we could and did,” he added.
But Mr Portes said that, “equally, those who said that this would make no visible difference at all to actual migration flows, since benefits are not a significant pull factor, were also correct”.
Michael O’Connor, a consultant, said the Department for Work and Pensions’ report showed the fall in out-of-work benefit claims by EEA migrants was accompanied by a simultaneous increase in applications by them for welfare payments that are available to people in employment. “Essentially the increase in one outweighs the decrease in another,” he added.
Between 2013-14 and 2015-16 the Department for Work and Pensions’ expenditure on out-of-work benefits for EEA migrants fell by £231m to £613m. Spending on in-work benefits for EEA migrants rose by £200m to £999m over the same period.
Mr O’Connor said the measures to tighten EEA migrants’ entitlement to out-of-work benefits, by not encouraging them to return home, did nothing to address concerns among some members of the public about scarce housing and demands on public services.
Instead, he added, the measures dealt with a very minor but politically controversial phenomenon.
In 2016 the then prime minister David Cameron described the UK’s benefits system as an “unnatural draw” for EU migrants.
But Mr Cameron’s views were challenged by some experts. Migration Watch, a pressure group that wants to reduce migration, said at the time “the primary draw for potential migrants is likely to be the availability of employment and much higher wages in the UK rather than the attraction of the benefits regime”.
Data from the Office for National Statistics last month showed migration to the UK fell to 246,000 in the 12 months to March 2017 — its lowest level in three years.
The data recorded a 59 per cent rise in emigration among people from the eight eastern European countries — including Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — that joined the EU in 2004.