David Cameron has once again been ‘talking tough’ on Europe and specifically migration of European citizens to the UK. Reported on the BBC today, Cameron calls for a 4 year curb of benefits to foreign workers. His big claim is that the UK pays too many in-work benefits to EU migrants. But he never once looks at the causes of needing to pay in-work benefits – a situation strongly linked to the lack of a living wage and low standards from the private sector – or accepts that they apply to all workers, foreign or not.
In this latest anti-EU, tough-on-immigration-bordering-on-xenophobic speech, David Cameron is shifting the blame for the growing cost of UK in-work welfare payments. Rather than blaming low pay, or increasing cost of living, he is attempting to vilify a small number of foreign migrants.
The number of working people relying on housing benefit to boost their income has doubled in five years with the figures standing at around 1 million people claiming benefits ‘in work’, compared to 586,000 in 2010. Reportedly this is an increase in government expenditure of £2.4 billion per year and the total figure is expected to rise to around £6 billion per year in 2018. Clearly this is a big problem. But it is not a problem linked to foreign workers.
Foreign migrants make a net contribution to public finances (paying more tax than is paid out in benefits and other services), and have been shown to be less likely to claim benefits than native UK citizens. Yet, here Cameron is blaming them for being a drain on resources. This is patently untrue but is a popular myth amongst many Conservative supporters and with the threat of UKIP’s rising popularity, Cameron will pander to their dangerous, myopic xenophobia in the hopes of retaining voters. In doing so, he is reinforcing and normalising their false beliefs to hide his own lack of action on the real issues.
Cameron will pander to their dangerous, myopic xenophobia in the hopes of retaining voters
The real problem lies in the soaring cost of rent while wages have reduced in real terms. This is forcing people in work to claim housing benefit. In response, the government claims that the total number of housing benefit claimants is falling. This is true – numbers are still up on May 2010 (4,751,526) but are down from their Feb 2013 peak (5,078,523), with the number at 4,930,162 housing benefit claimants in Aug 2014 ( Housing benefit caseload statistics: data to August 2014). But within that trend, there is still a rising number of in-work claimants – those figures have been steadily increasing, from 650,551 in May 2010 to 1,078,413 in Aug 2014 (same housing benefits data tables as above).
The Lib Dems claim that the UK needs to build 300,000 homes per year in order to meet demand and reduce house-price inflation but in October 2014 Danny Alexander admitted not enough house are being built with the number around 137,000 for the previous year. This shortage of housing increases housing costs and forces people in work to claim housing benefit. But rather than admit this, Cameron is making a public enemy out of foreign nationals.
In the absence of sufficient housebuilding to reduce rent and mortgage costs, there needs to be an increase in wages to compensate. The current minimum wage is £6.50 an hour for those over 21 but the Living Wage Foundation estimates the wage required to afford to live in the UK to be £7.85, or as much as £9.15 per hour in London. With the minimum wage being as little as 70% of the necessary living wage, it is no wonder that in-work claims are increasing. Yet rather than blame poor working conditions, Cameron is intent on demonising foreign migrants.
There is a cost of living crisis in the UK that primarily stems from falling wages and rising rent and it is so obvious that it is the one area where Labour have been campaigning hard in opposition. This inability to meet the cost of living is forcing people in work to claim welfare and the government’s public expenditure is rising – something that they understandably want to reduce. Yet rather than talk openly about the source of the problem and how it affects all people across the UK, the Conservatives are jumping on a popular sentiment of poverty-enriched isolationism and pointing the finger at a small number of foreign migrants.
This is self-serving, disingenuous, reminiscent of between-war-Germany and especially despicable given that foreign migrant workers are overall adding to public finances and therefore are helping to pay for the government’s failings.