The European Commission and the BBC are facing new questions over a controversial report into the effect of European Union migration to the UK.
By Robert Mendick, Chief reporter
9:00PM BST 19 Oct 2013
The study — whose details were first disclosed in The Telegraph — showed that more than 600,000 “non-active” EU migrants were living in the UK at a possible cost to the NHS alone of £1.5 billion a year.
But the EC report’s main conclusions — that the impact on the welfare state and on the NHS is “very low” — are now the subject of intense debate. In a series of developments:
Þ Senior Labour and Conservative politicians made public their opposition to the findings, which have been used by the EC to try to show that “benefit tourism” — the practice of going to a country to claim state benefits — is “neither widespread nor systematic”.
Þ Oxford University’s migration research unit said the conclusions drawn by the report were open to interpretation, given the statistical evidence available.
Þ Inquiries by The Telegraph found that the independent consultancies who wrote the report were awarded EU contracts worth more than £70 million over six years.
Þ The BBC was drawn into the row over its flagship news bulletin on the report, which Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, accused of lacking “balance”.
Evidence of mounting public concern in the EU’s biggest economies over migration emerged in a poll yesterday which showed that the introduction of restrictions on EU migrants’ rights is backed by 83 per cent of Britons, 73 per cent of Germans and 72 per cent of French respondents, in a survey of 5,206 adults.
David Cameron’s official spokesman said last week that there was “widespread and understandable concern” in the UK about benefit tourism.
He was speaking in response to the report, which last night was questioned by Frank Field, a former Labour welfare minister, who chairs Balanced Migration, a group made up of cross-party MPs.
“The conclusion of this report is genuinely mystifying when the issue over what is going on is quite clear,” he said. “Many migrants are here and they are not in work. So how are they living?”
The report shows that between 2008 and 2011, the number of job-seeking EU migrants coming to the UK increased by 73 per cent, while during the same period the total EU migrant population rose by only 28 per cent. It found that 611,779 economically “non-active” EU migrants aged 15 and over were in the UK in 2011. This includes job-seekers, students, stay-at-home spouses and pensioners.
The European Commission insists the study supports the conclusion “that economically non-active EU mobile citizens account for a very small share of beneficiaries and that the budgetary impact of such claims on national welfare budgets is very low”.
But writing in The Telegraph, Douglas Carswell, a prominent Euro-sceptic Conservative MP, accused the EC of “spinning the facts to downplay the impact of benefit tourism”.
Separately, Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, a senior researcher with Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, regarded as the most respected body on UK migration, suggested the report’s analysis was open to interpretation. “There is no problem with the numbers [in the report],” he said. “The issue is the interpretation of those numbers.
“If this report was done by academics, it would have been just about purely the facts without putting interpretation into the numbers. What is “big” for somebody is “small” for someone else. This is where political interpretation comes in.”
Criticisms of the report’s conclusions were vehemently rejected by the office of Laszlo Andor, the European commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, which published the study.
Mr Andor, a socialist, said: “The study makes clear that the majority of mobile EU citizens move to another member state to work and puts into perspective the dimension of the so-called benefit tourism which is neither widespread nor systematic. The commission remains committed to ensuring that EU citizens that would like to work in another EU country can do so without facing discrimination or obstacles.”
However, Mr Andor said he recognised the “local” and “regional” strains “created by a large, sudden influx of people from other EU countries into a particular geographical area”.
The study cost the EU, paid for out of taxpayers’ funds, about £190,000 and took nine months to complete.
A Telegraph analysis of the EU’s Financial Transparency database showed that the consultancies who tendered successfully to write the report — ICF GHK and the Brussels-based Milieu Limited — had been awarded more than £70 million of contracts in the past six years, covering 440 projects. A key chapter in the 276-page report on Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants in the UK was written by a consultant who specialises in environmental law.
Both firms rejected any suggestion their impartiality had been compromised. Mr Andor’s spokesman said: “The European Commission selects contractors in strict compliance with public procurement rules to ensure value for taxpayers’ money, high quality and independence.”
It also emerged that one of the main supporters of the report — a senior economist who expressed backing for it in a debate on the BBC and on The Guardian’s website — was in receipt of more than £600,000 of EU funding for the year ending March 2012 for his think tank.
Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and a former senior economics adviser to the last Labour government, said it was public knowledge that his institution received funding from the EU, a fact stated on the NIESR website.
Mr Portes said: “It’s no secret that NIESR … secures funding for specific research projects from the European Commission, as it does from the UK government, usually via competitive tender. It’s also no secret that this hasn’t stopped NIESR from criticising commission or UK government policy.”
On the report itself, Mr Portes said: “My view is that there’s nothing in it that’s particularly surprising or new as regards the UK — it confirms what economists already knew, that EU migrants to the UK are more likely to be in work and less likely to be claiming benefits, and hence overall are likely to make a significant net contribution to the financing of the welfare state.”
He was accused by one Conservative MP of being like “Pavlov’s dog”, eager to “pop up” in support of large-scale immigration “every time somebody criticises” it.
Stewart Jackson, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, said Mr Portes should have declared the EU funding received by NIESR — worth more than a quarter of its total income — during a debate on the report on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. The row has spread to the BBC’s flagship 10 O’Clock News programme over its handling of the report. Mr Duncan Smith last night accused the corporation of biased reporting on the bulletin on Monday, which is analysed (above) by The Sunday Telegraph.
A spokesman for Mr Duncan Smith said: “It is difficult to see any balance in this [BBC News] report and sadly there seems to be no attempt to fairly reflect the Government’s view.”
The BBC stood by its report, saying: “Our coverage of this report was fair, balanced and impartial. We also included criticism of the UK Government by the commission and the Government’s position.” The study’s publication last week came ahead of a court dispute between the European Commission and the Government over payments to potentially tens of thousands of EU benefit claimants.
Currently, all people seeking work in Britain are eligible for Jobseeker’s Allowance, of £56.80 a week. They do not need to have previously paid tax or National Insurance, making the benefit “non-contributory”. This also applies to other benefits, including housing benefit, child benefit and child tax credit.
In 2004, the Government introduced a “right to reside” test which asks immigrants to prove that they are “economically active”, which can include actively seeking work, or are self-supporting, before they can claim many non-contributory benefits, in particular Jobseeker’s Allowance.
But the EC says this breaks EU law because non-contributory benefits should be equally available to all EU citizens. The right to reside test is not applied to UK citizens. Later this year it will formally start a case at the European Court of Justice to try to stop the use of the right to reside test.
Ministers fiercely oppose the action, which they say will make Britain seem far more generous than other countries and encourage “benefit tourism” — precisely the phenomenon the report says there is “little evidence of”.
Many other countries only allow benefits — including access to health care — to be given to people who have spent qualifying periods working or living in the country and paying towards their welfare systems. The EC says that this is legal because it applies equally to citizens of those countries and to EU migrants to them. But critics say it allows other EU countries to limit the burden to the state of European migrants.
The legal action will come a few weeks ahead of the lifting of restrictions on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.