Tory critic of ‘benefit tourism’ doesn’t understand migration rules

Some of our MPs don't even understand the rules governing migrants and benefits.

Curbs on so-called benefit tourism are ‘backed by all major parties’, according to today’s Times, which reports that the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour all want to tighten the rules on how long migrants have to be in the UK before they are entitled to make a claim.

Benefit tourism has come to dominate the agenda of the government of late, with David Cameron desperately trying to outflank UKIP on the right but also assuage public concerns about an ‘influx’ of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria (no ‘influx’ as yet).

A recent OECD report found that immigrants make a net contribution equivalent to 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3 billion. As the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) has pointed out, if net immigration was reduced to zero public sector debt would rise by £18 billion over five years.

And yet, unfortunately a perception of hoards of EU migrants coming to Britain to ‘steal our benefits’ persists.

But perhaps this is not surprising when so many of our elected representatives don’t understand the basic rules governing migrants and benefits.

On Saturday I took part in a debate about so-called benefit tourism with Tory MP Peter Bone on BBC Radio 5 Live. To get a gist of where Mr Bone is coming from on this, he is the MP who recently said that UKIP and the Tories together would be unstoppable.

It won’t be a surprise, then, to learn that during the debate me and Mr Bone disagreed. What was surprising was just how uninformed Mr Bone was.

During the first part of the debate, Mr Bone claimed that migrants from Eastern Europe were claiming benefits as soon as they set foot in Britain – ignoring the fact that the government introduced measures on January 1 preventing people from claiming out-of-work benefits until they have been in the UK for three months (and prior to that migrants had to wait one month).

As Mr Bone put it:

“People come from Eastern Europe to claim benefits straight away and people don’t think that’s right.”

He then repeated the claim:

“The main problem is the numbers and the effect it’s having on our public services…but in my view it’s wrong that people can come straight from Bulgaria, claim benefits which they haven’t really earned entitlement to.”

After I pointed out that migrants actually have to wait a month to claim out-of-work benefits (three months since 1 January), Mr Bone changed his tune:

“The idea that people can come in here and claim benefits after a *very short period of time* is to most people wrong”.

It’s a shame that someone – one of our MPs no less – who has such a strong view on the issue has such a weak grasp of the basics.

* Just to put this in context, migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA – the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) have made a strong contribution to the UK economy in the decade up to 2011, contributing 34 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits.

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