The Daily Mail, propagating misinformation about immigrants to sell Iain Duncan Smith’s Welfare Bill, is cynical indeed, writes Ruth Grove-White of the Migrants' Rights Network.
Earlier this week, the front page of the Daily Mail pronounced:
‘Thousands of illegal workers claiming benefits: Loophole in the law costs taxpayers millions’
This story was also repeated in the Daily Express, and referenced in a Parliamentary Question by Conservative MP Priti Patel on Monday, who asked for assurance that this matter would be addressed by the government.
But was this story a real expose of ‘welfare abuse’ or a case of smoke and mirrors?
The story, as it ran in the Daily Mail, informed readers that 155,000 irregular migrants have been claiming sickness benefits and maternity pay, at a cost to the public purse estimated by an unnamed government source to run to ‘tens of millions’ of pounds.
But not to worry – the source reassured the Daily Mail that this ‘incredibly unfair’ loophole will be closed by the government’s Welfare Bill, due for release this week, which will start a ‘root and branch overhaul’ of the UK welfare system.
The analysis presented by the Daily Mail turns out, however, to be based on loose ‘guess-timates’, rather than on any new evidence about the number of irregular claimants of certain benefits.
The basis for the story is that claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), paternity, maternity and sick pay are not routinely asked to present proof of the right to work in the UK when they make a claim – these benefits can be granted on the basis of presentation of a National Insurance number. In theory this could mean that those working here with a false NI number could claim benefits to which they are not technically entitled, despite potentially having paid into the welfare system via taxes and NI contributions.
The problem, as asserted by the London School of Economics in 2006, is that there is no way of knowing how many irregular migrants may have claimed particular benefits in the UK, or even how many people are working irregularly here. Rather than a picture of rampant abuse of the welfare system, however, available research into irregular migrants indicates that they occupy an unenviable position at the bottom of the labour market, characterised by insecurity and often exploitation.
Interviews with irregular workers indicate that their primary concern is often to avoid detection by the authorities, making many unlikely to attempt to claim benefits to which they are not entitled. The lack of concrete information about this group of immigrants should not be a license to print guesswork as fact.
Ultimately, the timing of the Daily Mail article – released in the days ahead of Iain Duncan Smith’s Welfare Bill – seems to tell the real story. But propagating misinformation about immigrants to sell the public this policy is cynical indeed.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.