Has there been a sharp rise in Eastern Europeans claiming benefits?

6 September 2013


This article has now been updated with data from 2013 and more detail on the type of benefits claimed.

The government is clear that it regards both tackling Britian's "benefits culture" and reducing immigration as top political priorities. It's therefore not surprising that the issue of foreigners claiming benefits - a marriage of these concerns - is in the spotlight.

The Conservatives have signalled that they intend to limit access to welfare for EU migrants, who are currently entitled to most of the benefits that British citizens can access. 

According to the Daily Telegraph, government figures show that there has been "a sharp rise" in the number of benefit claims from Eastern European immigrants. 

The data in question - released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) under the Freedom of Information Act - shows that the number of people from Eastern Europe claiming working-age benefits has multiplied almost five fold since 2008. Then there were some 13,000 claimants from the 'accession countries' (which include the nations of Eastern Europe); by this year time, there were almost 59,000. 

The benefits in question are Job Seeker's Allowance (JSA), Employment Support Allowance (ESA), incapacity benefit and income support. This means we're not talking about people claiming child benefit, housing benefit or tax credits.

What these statistics tell us is that in the last few years there has been an increase in the number of people who, when they first entered the labour market (registered for a National Insurance number) were non-UK nationals. However, we don't know how many of these people are now British citizens.

Someone arriving from Poland in 2009, and who is now a British citizen, is still - according to this data set - regarded as a national from an EU accession country. This means some of these benefit claims might not be rendered illegitimate even if the government imposed further restrictions on EU nationals.

According to the DWP, a significant number of immigrants might now be British citizens. A sample of claimants from outside the European Economic Area suggested that more than half (54%) had subsequently obtained British citizenship.

We don't have equivalent figures for European nationals, but it's possible that a sizeable number have gone on to become British citizens. EU citizens are already entitled (without British citizenship) to claim benefits that non-EU immigrants may not be entitled to and they're able to come to the UK and live here for as long as they wish. Meanwhile, those from outside the EU would need to apply for an extension to their visa or, alternatively, British citizenship.

At the moment, whether you're a Slovakian or British citizen, you're able to claim (broadly speaking) the same benefits. While the government has recently imposed restrictions on residency requirements, which means some EU immigrants are not immediately eligible for certain benefits, the European Commission is challenging this policy in the European Court of Human Rights.

Since 2008 there has been a steep increase in the number of Eastern European immigrants claiming working-age benefit. Yet it's important to note that the fourfold increase in benefit claims between 2008 and 2012 is not wholly due to Eastern European immigrants (as nationals from Malta and Cyprus are also included).

These statistics provide an estimate of the number of people currently claiming benefits who were classed as foreigners (non-UK nationals) when they first entered the labour market. However, some of these people are now British citizens. 

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