Alex Massie

The Myth of the Immigrant Benefit-Scrounger

The Myth of the Immigrant Benefit-Scrounger
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The Sunday Express is at it again. It is outraged that Britain's prisons contain some inmates who were not born in this country. Of course, everyone is hopping aboard the immigrant-bashing bandwagon these days. Immigration, it sometimes seems, is something to be feared, not valued. I understand the political calculation behind all this. The restrictionists have carried the day and there are few votes in seeming "soft" on immigration these days. Which is a shame. But there you have it.

Nevertheless, the immigration brouhaha increasingly bears more than a passing resemblance to a moral panic. As tends to be the case, such fears are not utterly groundless but they are hyped and exaggerated to a point at which they become irrational and, even, nonsensical. The great Foreigners Clogging Our Prisons, Stealing Our Jobs, Milking Our Benefits, Just Bloody Being Here is one such example.

True, the rate at which Romanians are imprisoned in British prisons suggests some chicanery on the part of some recent arrivals from the Carpathians. But let us not be hysterical about this. Consider the Poles. There are, according to the recent census, some 521,000 Polish-born folk living in the United Kingdom. Last month 807 of them were behind British bars. We might wish that number to be lower but no-one can sensibly claim this demonstrates Britain is enduring - with our usual soft-hearted stoicism or whatnot - some kind of Polish crime wave.

Nor do the benefit figures suggest there are large numbers of Poles for whom spongeing off the state is the chief reason for coming to Britain. It is estimated that there are fewer than 14,000 Poles claiming unemployment benefit. Again, we might wish that number smaller but it is simply untrue to suggest there are large numbers of Poles loafing in Britain and chuckling at the British state's ill-conceived largesse. Indeed, there are more unemployment claimants in just two Birmingham constituencies (Hodgehill and Ladywood) than there are Poles claiming unemployment benefit in the whole United Kingdom. (Poles, of course, may be different from other nationalities. On the other hand, there are many more of them.)

Of course, there are other benefits besides the Job Seekers' Allowance. But I'm not sure there's a strong case for arguing that child benefit or tax credits be withheld from one class of foreigner but not another. If Poles or Romanians are to be subjected to one class of rule why shouldn't Italians or Frenchmen be treated comparably?

Indeed there is a noteworthy double standard here. It has become quite common to observe politicians and pundits on the right using the rising number of French citizens residing in the United Kingdom (and especially in London) as an example of how flexible British labour markets, British rates of taxation and British entrepreneurial spirit are all evidently superior to the way the (dastardly) French arrange these matters. French emigration to Britain is welcome and proof that Britain is booming; Bulgarian emigration to Britain is proof Britain is a "soft-touch" country desperately needing to close its borders. If as many as 300,000 Frenchies are welcome here, we can cope with a few thousand Romanians coming too.

Again, even those of us relaxed about immigration have to accept that population increase places some additional pressure on services. School places need to be available. So does housing. But these are fixable issues of a kind much less damaging than the consequences of a falling population. And, of course, as can hardly be stressed too often, the "pressure" put on these services in London (for example) is exactly the same whether the capital's newest arrival has upped sticks from Belfast or Bucharest. (Want to fix the housing problem? Relax planning restrictions.) So what next? Restrictions on internal migration too?

In any case, it is strange to look at immigration as though foreigners only impose costs. Plainly they do not. They meet needs in the labour market. They add to the demand for goods and services. Indeed their net impact is considerable. The British economy is able to take advantage of their skills, their work and their spending without having had to pay for the costs of their education or training. Immigrants are a form of economic stimulus.

Does that mean all immigrants are salt-of-the-earth types? Hardly. There will be some whose presence on these shores we could do without. But tabloid hysteria about an immigrant-fuelled crime-wave or benefit-scrounging is simply that: hysteria. Keeping matters in perspective and retaining a sense of proportion is no fun for the press but tableoid excesses - and lurid individual cases - ought not to blind us to the reality that the vast majority of immigrants to this country are here to work, not to exploit "the system."