Here for the work

Scares about recent EU migrants claiming benefits have proven to be false, writes Gary Vaux
I am proud to live in a cosmopolitan part of west London. Recently, I’ve noticed little changes taking place: the late-night shops now have a Polish food section; hand car-washes have proliferated; the languages overheard in the supermarkets and shops are more varied than ever.

So it was no surprise that some newspapers and politicians used the recent announcement about the extent of immigration from the A8 countries (those that joined the EU in May 2004) to launch an attack on immigration policy. Headline figures of 600,000 people allegedly coming to the UK (with apparently more to follow when Bulgaria and Rumania join the EU), suggested they were here to line their pockets from the generous British social security system.

However, close examination of A8 immigrants figures shows the more lurid claims about “benefit dependency” to have very little basis in fact.

Of the 427,000 people from the A8 countries who have registered for work in the UK (many of whom are transient, that is they are not all here at the same time) only 5,943 have claimed Jobseeker’s allowance, for example. Only 27,280 have been awarded child benefit and 14,009 have gained tax credits (some of these numbers will also overlap). Only 110 of the new immigrants have applied for local authority housing. Hardly significant numbers, given the tax and NI contributions made by incoming workers, over 80 per cent of whom are under 34.

However, there is a wider issue around social security that the employment profile of A8 immigrants has brought to light, even though it has attracted little comment so far.

The government is heavily committed to a welfare reform agenda based around getting upwards of one million claimants off income support, incapacity benefit and JSA, and into work. Many of those will be looking for “entry-level” employment or re-employment. 

Many will have mental health problems or difficulties with workplace skills.

Those claimants will be directly competing with healthy, able and skilled workers from A8 countries, in that part of the labour market which covers manual work, restaurant and hotel jobs, warehouse and farm work and so on. Wage levels won’t play much part, as both groups will be earning at or just above national minimum wage rates.

But the attitude of employers will be crucial. Put another way, if you were an employer looking to take on a new employee, would you be interested in the person with a 10-year history of mental ill-health and no recent work experience or the young, fit, person from Poland who has an abundance of technical skills?

And the social welfare sector is not immune to that dilemma – already nearly 12,000 of the A8 workers are employed as home carers and care assistants.

There clearly needs to be a real debate about whether welfare reform based on “free market” competitive principles is compatible with unfettered A8 immigration.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question to be answered please write to him c/o Community Care


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