Far from the unfounded headlines about EU migrants grabbing British jobs, record numbers of British citizens are in work too
The disclosure before the crucial European Union summit that the number of citizens of other EU countries working in Britain had risen above the 2 million mark for the last six months was widely reported as bad news for David Cameron.
But behind the unfounded headlines about “EU migrants grabbing British jobs” lies a basic truth: that mass European migration is actually fuelling the relative growth of the UK economy that in turn is making Britain “the jobs factory of Europe” that brings them here.
For while some politicians chose only to focus on the growth of EU citizens employed in Britain, they ignored the fact that the same set of official statistics – the quarterly labour market survey – showed that record numbers of British citizens were in work too. Indeed, 1 million more Britons are in work and 850,000 more Europeans are working in Britain since David Cameron became prime minister.
The Guardian’s Brexit Means … Is Britain expecting the impossible? Brexit Means… podcast
‘Nobody said it would be easy,’ says David Davis. We discuss what has been making life difficult for the Brexit secretary this week
The fact of the matter is that the story of EU migration to work in Britain should not be seen as a sudden, recent mass invasion to be necessarily feared by every British worker. It is now a fact of life that Britain has been a country of net mass migration every year for the past 20 years.
As recent research from University College London shows, European migrants are not a drain on Britain’s finances; what is more, they actually pay in more in taxes than they take out in state benefits. That contribution – valued at £2bn a year – is helping to fuel Britain’s economic growth.
Their studies also explode the myth that they are all Polish plumbers undercutting honest British workmen.
More than 60% of new migrants from western and southern Europe, who account for 900,000 of the 2 million who work here, are now university graduates. For eastern Europeans, 25% are graduates – similar to the proportion in the UK-born workforce.
And no, they are not all working as baristas in coffee shops. Britain is managing to attract the highest number of university-educated migrants of any country in the EU year after year to work in the financial, technology and media industries.
It is against this background that the summit debate about EU migrants and benefits needs to be judged.
The latest figures show that while there are 2 million EU citizens working in the UK, there were a further 91,700 – or 4.5% – who were claiming out-of-work benefits last summer. A further 317,000 of the 2 million – around 15% – were claiming tax credits, underlining that the overwhelming majority are not in the lowest paid jobs.
So what impact will the “emergency brake” of restricting access to in-work benefits for the first two to four years actually have? Nobody has any conclusive figures to know how many EU migrants claim benefits in their first four years in the UK. But there now appears to be some agreement that Britain is such a powerful “jobs factory” that it is the prospect of a job rather than claiming benefits that is attracting them.
It is important to note that there is no uniform social security policy in Europe. Each country has its own criteria and qualifying period for different types of benefit. Many of the 28 countries have almost entirely a contributory or social insurance based system before benefits can be claimed.
At one extreme an EU citizen has to live in the Czech Republic for 10 years before they can claim incapacity benefit. In some cases national insurance contributions made in one country can be used to qualify for benefits in another.
Against this background Britain’s move to introduce a phased qualifying period of between two to four years for certain in-work tax credit benefits could be seen as a modest measure that simply brings the UK into line with common European practice. If anything the emergency brake could be said, like so much of this debate, to make us into more of a modern European country.