Migrants: Here for benefits or valued grafters?

Official estimates for non-British nationals claiming benefits.

Official estimates for non-British nationals claiming benefits. - Credit: Archant

Immigration is set to be a key battleground in the European election in May. Political editor Annabelle Dickson asks if figures estimating the number of non-British people claiming some sort of benefit, obtained under freedom of information, support or dispel suggestions that our country is a magnet for 'benefits tourism' and if the numbers matter

A small price to pay or a trend on the rise?

Figures showing the scale of non-UK nationals benefits have divided opinion.

In February last year there were 2,500 people in Norfolk claiming some kind of benefit – a 31pc increase from just before the last European elections in 2009. In Suffolk it was up 40pc at 1,680. Cambridgeshire was up 36pc at 1,660, while Essex was up 31pc at 2,700.

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Patrick O'Flynn, who is first in line for UKIP for an Eastern region European Parliament seat, said the figures were 'very disturbing' and with 'open door immigration' now extended to Romania and Bulgaria, the trend was likely to continue.

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But the East's only Liberal Democrat MEP, Andrew Duff, said it actually wasn't very many in the context of the overall benefit of migrants to the economy.

GRAPHIC: Official estimates for non-British nationals claiming benefits

'Compared to all those who are employed and pay taxes, it is of marginal importance,' he said.

Of course, it is not just claims on benefits that are a concern and Mr Duff, an ardent supporter of the European Union, admits that it has made schools more crowded and put pressure on housing supply.

The proportion of pupils identified by their parents or guardians as 'any other white background' in Norfolk has increased from 3.5pc in January 2011 – or 3,840 – to 4.5pc – or 4,922 – in January 2013.

Mr Duff says it is up to local authorities to be more prepared than they previously have been to cater for migration as the British economy relies on labour migration from the EU, and it has been relying on it for many years.

'Employers across the region tell me that they cannot find a supply of sufficiently educated and skilled people who are keen to take on work.

'That says a lot about our school system, which is regrettable, but if anyone is to argue that we have to restrict the flow of labour they need to answer to the businesses that are in need of it.'

But Labour's only Eastern MEP, Richard Howitt, says that his party will be tougher on employment agencies and rogue employers who deliberately recruit foreign labour and ship it in, which he says undermines people's jobs and conditions locally.

He said: 'Instead of blaming migrants, let's have tough enforcement of employment to make sure local people can feel more secure in their job and more likely to be better paid.

'One of our pledges is to reform the law on agency workers so they are banned from only recruiting foreign workers.

'Everyone should have a chance for a job,' he added.

Tory MEP Vicky Ford argues that there is a balance to be struck between encouraging the 'best and brightest brains' to want to come and live in our country – particularly in the Cambridge cluster.

But she said: 'On the other hand you have pockets across the East of England where you have very significant migration and that has put a lot of pressure on communities.

'Then you have stories and concerns about the pressure that has put on local services. That is why it has been really important that you have taken action on the abuses of the freedom of movement. Make sure it is clear that travelling to work is one thing and travelling for welfare benefits is another thing. Changing local systems so local people get the first houses is right. You need to put money into the system first.'

But prime minister David Cameron's plans to limit European Union migrants' access to welfare in Britain, with eventual plans to restrict migrants from poorer EU states relocating to richer ones, has put him on a collision course with the European Commission. It could take Britain to court over its attempts.

However, for UKIP, there is no reform to be had within the EU.

Mr O'Flynn said: 'Free movement is so deeply enshrined in the EU that the only solution is for Britain to leave and to thereby gain the freedom to run its own immigration policy again. Otherwise in-work benefits, out- of-work benefits and social benefits will end up being paid to newcomers in ever greater amounts.

'We need to restore volume control and quality control to our immigration policy and we need to do it now.'

As the European elections approach, the debate will no doubt continue.

The European Elections take place on May 22

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