The truth behind tabloid attacks on ‘benefits tourism’

10:30 am - March 5th 2013

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by Steve Rose

Benefit tourism is another right-wing myth that satisfies the worst of tabloid prejudices. We must challenge these assumptions if we hope the influence the debate.

Myth 1: They come here just to claim benefits!

In February 2011,  DWP figures indicated there were 1.44 million people claiming Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), less than 38,000 claimants were from EU countries (roughly 2.6%), under 13,000 (roughly 0.9%) were from the eight EU states that joined in 2004.  

Out of 5.5 million people claiming working age benefits only 370,000 (6.4%) were non-UK nationals when registering national insurance numbers.

Iain Duncan Smith famously had to correct his own figure by 92% when he claimed benefit tourism would cost £2bn (the actual figure was £155m). The EU has stringent rules regarding benefits. You can stay in the UK or another member state for up to three months with a valid passport but any longer, you must be in employment, continually seeking employment, studying or able to prove self-sufficiency.  

To claim certain benefits you must pass the habitual residency test. This test is bound by EU legislation that the UK must observe.

What is this test? According to Citizens Advice, this process can take six months to complete. However, certain groups will be exempt. If you fail, you cannot claim every benefit.

Firstly, you must prove your right to reside and intention to settle (habitual residence). If you want to claim Housing Benefit, income-related ESA/JSA or Income Support you must satisfy the above conditions. However, with Child Benefit, you only need to prove your right to reside.

The decision maker will be the DWP, local authority or HMRC. They will ask questions based upon the above criteria and what ties you have to this country. Habitual residence can be difficult to prove as they may consider how likely you are to find work or by the length of your intended residence.

Your centres of interest (e.g. family in the UK, home ownership or having enrolled your children in education) are taken into consideration. However, each claim is based on individual circumstance.

Myth 2: Most come here unemployed
This report by the Oxford Migration Observatory indicates that in 2011, 32% of migrants came with the purpose to work. More had guaranteed jobs (20%) than came looking for work (12%). Consequently, many emigrate from the UK for the same pursuits of employment (35% have guaranteed work and 22% seek employment).

Students make up a greater number for that year (41%). However, just two years later, the government have allowed student visas applications to fall by 70,000. Genuine or not, students are now being denied the chance to study here and the country misses their economic activity. In the pursuit of media pleasing policies, the government continue their xenophobia despite the positive economic benefits of immigration.

Steve Rose tweets from here and blogs here.

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Reader comments

1. Dislecksick

is the truth behind benefit tourism, or the lies behind importing votes?

Really useful – thanks. Even I didn’t realise it was *that* difficult to get at benefits as a new arrival.

It makes it fairly obvious that the government’s recent talking up of the idea of making housing benefits dependent on length of local residency / family connections because of the influx of Bulgarians are in reality a smokescreen for cutting spending on non-immigrant UK citizens.

I imagine the wheeze is that local authorities ‘place’ someone from say, Croydon, in Hastings. After a few years responsibility for their case passes to Hastings, and can be denied support there too because they have no long-standing connection to Hastings. Of course this would be denied, but then they’ve had a policy of denying obvious consequences of policy and blaming local authorities from the start.

“We must challenge these assumptions if we hope the influence the debate.”

Good idea!

“Myth 1: They come here just to claim benefits!…

…Out of 5.5 million people claiming working age benefits only 370,000 (6.4%) were non-UK nationals when registering national insurance numbers.”

Erm… what? That might debunk Myth 0.9, “most benefit claimants are foreign”, but it tells us absolutely nothing about the proportion of immigrants who “come here just to claim benefits”. For all those figures tell us, there could be 370,000 foreign nationals in the UK, 100% of whom came just to claim benefits.

Not saying you’re wrong, but you need some more relevant figures.

I suppose I should be clear here before I get accused of ‘concern trolling’ or something. *Obviously* there are way more than 370,000 foreign nationals in the UK, and *obviously* most of those 370,000 foreign-born benefit claimants will be in work, or genuinely looking for work, so *obviously* the proportion of immigrants who come here ‘just to claim benefits’ must be very small. But the figures quoted here do not make that case.

Manipulative aren’t they! What defies greater belief – that the Coalition are so arrogant that they believe we buy into the spin, or that some people really do and it is these that the government pitch the level of communication at?

Yes, they may well be being denied benefits.
One fallout from this is the disproportionate number of Eastern European men using the services of homeless charities. Denied housing, or beds in the likes of the Salvation Army hostels (where they now seem to be running strict ”locals only” policies) I presume many are sleeping rough or squatting.
I have only seen anecdotal evidence of this in Leeds, Plymouth …. and Dublin, where the worst street drinkers were often from eastern Europe.
One young guy from Lithuania I got talking to there said that Dublin was really good for hanging out and eating free meals at the charities. Not like at home he said, where you got little.

Also Vienna last summer. The charity food places were overrun with eastern European and Balkan men and family groups. So much so that one church soup kitchen in the centre of the city had an ”Austrians only” policy too.
I know this, as I ate there once and then got asked to leave when they found out I was British.

7. MarkAustin

@5. Lynn

“Manipulative aren’t they! What defies greater belief – that the Coalition are so arrogant that they believe we buy into the spin, or that some people really do and it is these that the government pitch the level of communication at?”

Yes, people do believe this. I’ve had this argument with a number of people who flat out refuse to believe that fewer immigrants than UK subjects (proportionally) are on benefits, or that immigrants (in particular refugees) do not know about UK benefit levels despite survey after survey showing this.

If you repeat an untruth often enough it gets accepted as a fact.

Good article. The Daily Hate ought to be sued over libellous claims. I also did not realise how difficult it was for newcomers to obtain benefits, interesting…

This is fine as far as it goes but you haven’t mentioned tax credits which is Farage’s favourite headline grabber. You get £50-£60 a week for each child, plus your child benefit.

10. Shatterface

The habitual residence test also aplies to UK citizens returning to the UK after a period abroad.

11. Suburban Tory

The Habitual Residency Test was introduced in 1994. If I recall correctly in response to EU students coming to the UK on holiday and claiming benefits during their summer break. The Labour Government chose not to abolish it.

From my experience most Habitual Residency Test decisions were made in a matter of days not months.

People waiting six months for a decision would be as rare as a single mother with 11 children.

Surely it is right to expect people with no connection to the UK to at least contribute something before we open up the benefits system to them.

12. Shatterface

From the Daily Mail point of view those who aren’t here to claim benefits are here to steal our jobs so the percentage of immigrants claiming benefits is largely irrelevant.


“The truth behind tabloid attacks on ‘benefits tourism’”

I cringe whenever I see any claim to ‘The truth…’. In politics, there are truths, but no one ‘truth’. And, incidentally, idiocy is party-neutral.

“Myth 1: They come here just to claim benefits!”

A ‘straw man’ argument, if ever I saw one. Few (if any?) claim that immigrants come to the UK “just to claim benefits!” Obviously, there are other factors: the English language, our world-city multi-ethnic capital, our tolerant and democratic society, our (relatively) open economy…etc. The point is that the benefits + health system are a (not the) draw.

And, as GO shows @ 3, you cannot even refute your own straw man.

Furthermore, using your figures (which are, I think, out of date), 13000 Eastern Europeans claiming only JSA amounts to £38m-£48m pa (depending on the JSA rate claimed) before taking healthcare free at the point of use, Housing Benefit etc into account. This is not a negligible sum: can you not think of a better way in which it might be spent within the welfare budget?

And it takes no account of non-EU nationals…

“Myth 2: Most come here unemployed”

*sigh* Another straw man…Cite, if you can, a rabid tabloid saying this; but the concern in my pub is that some – not all or most – immigrants come here without employment.

More broadly and generally…if the welfare state is seen to be supporting the ‘undeserving’ and the ‘freeloaders’ (eg Heather Frost), it will lose democratic legitimacy – ie majority support. Surely, that should worry people on the left?

14. Just Visiting

According to the Citizen;s Advice Bureau, many coming from Europe don’t need to take the Habitual Residence Test: eg if you formerly had work in the UK:

Or it sounds pretty easy to call yourself ‘Self employed’ which is another group who don’t need to pass the test:


If you’re self-employed in the UK, you don’t have to take the HRT. However, you must be genuinely self-employed. This includes setting yourself up as self-employed. For example, by advertising your services, doing accounts, registering with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and trying to get work. There is no minimum period of time in which you must have been self-employed.

You should register as self-employed with HMRC and keep details of the work you do, for example keep accounts and copies of invoices or receipts as this may be useful evidence when making your claim.

As you point out, you need to you must prove your right to reside in the UK and intention to settle here.

The CAB says you can prove your right to reside in the UK by producing a passport which shows you are an EEA national (that’s the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway).

And the CAB says you can prove “habitual residence” with evidence such as “flight or travel tickets showing when you came into the UK”.

I can see that some commenters here believe these to be massive hurdles but to be honest they don’t seem that difficult to me.

Perhaps a more sensible approach would be to point out that EU citizens (and citizens of other EEA states) have a right to come here; a right to be treated fairly while they are here, and that this is part of Britain’s membership of the EU, which we benefit enormously from. We’re free, after all, to leave any time we like.

Perhaps most significant is the simple fact that immigrants generally come here to work and not to claim benefits at all.

“Perhaps most significant is the simple fact that immigrants generally come here to work and not to claim benefits at all”

This was always the case.

Got sick of repeating this to people too wrapped up in immigrant hysteria to notice such facts.

There’s a good article here on this subject, with some more relevant figures on the proportion of immigrants claiming benefits:

18. margin4error


the figure you were looking for was the 7.5million people in the UK who were foreign born (thus immigrants) in the last census.

So even if we take the daily mail scenario f all those 370,000 being nasty scrounging bstds – it is only about 5% of immigrants coming here for the benefits.

Of course this somewhat overlooks those who came here in the 70s and are presently unemployed after 30 years of work – who have, to put it bluntly, earned their right to that support.

It also overlooks those who would never have come here at all, but having met a Brit and fallen in love, got married and ended up living here to be with their other half – who occasionally are unemployed.

And so on and so on.

19. margin4error

btw – interesting point

5% is actually a lower proportion than the proportion of people born here who are claiming benefits.

So actually – immigrants seem to be setting an example for Lazy indiginous types. 😉

Another way to counter right-wing myths is for left-wing politicians to tell the truth about the way the system works.

Yvette Cooper began this process today, saying:”The habitual residence test works in the vast majority of cases, but one practical change within existing European rules would be to add a “presence test” to the habitual residence test to make it clear and to clarify for everyone that Jobseekers Allowance cannot be claimed within a few days or weeks, and that people will be expected to be in the country for some time or to contribute before they get something back. That could be done swiftly.

We should also start discussions with Europe over reforming the long standing provision stretching back many decades which requires family benefits to be paid even if the family members live abroad. It is currently set out in EC Regulation 883/2004.

This causes significant unfairness. If someone moves from Newcastle to London for work and leaves their children behind they cannot claim child tax credit. But if someone moves to London leaving their children in Paris or Prague instead they can claim child tax credit and send it home. That’s not fair. Most people feel the support we provide for children growing up as part of our country shouldn’t be paid to those living in a different country instead. The Government should be building an alliance across Europe to get that regulation changed.”

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