A post shared on X (formerly Twitter) and also reposted several times on Facebook claims: “Since 1997 over 12 million immigrants have entered Britain. 80% remain firmly dependent on Welfare. Total cost is £50k per person pa [per annum]. This is a staggering amount of money. Close to £500 billion. It’s destroying our National economy.”
While the post appears to slightly understate the scale of inward immigration to the UK over the past quarter of a century, we’ve found no evidence to support the claim that 80% of immigrants who arrived during that period are “dependent on welfare”.
Assuming that “welfare” refers to benefit payments from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), it’s also not true that “close to £500 billion” per year is spent on benefit payments to immigrants. The DWP has said these posts have no factual basis.
Claims about the amount immigrants receive in state support regularly circulate on social media, and we’ve written about several such posts on a number of previous occasions. These kinds of posts can undermine understanding of public policy. Online claims like these can spread fast and far, and are difficult to contain and correct.
Honesty in public debate matters
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Non-British immigration to the UK since 1997 exceeds 13 million
The post claims that “since 1997 over 12 million immigrants have entered Britain”.
Based on official immigration data, this figure appears too low. It suggests that total immigration to the UK between 1997 and 2022 (the latest full year for which data is available), excluding British nationals, was approximately 13.5 million—so 1.5 million higher than the post claims.
It’s worth noting that immigration figures are estimates, and the way they have been calculated has changed over the years.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that over this period approximately 6.1 million people (again, excluding British nationals), emigrated from the UK, meaning that the net number of non-UK national immigrants to the UK was approximately 7.4million. These figures also don’t account for non-UK immigrants who have died since arriving in the UK.
£500 billion annual cost of benefits for immigrants is inaccurate
The post also claims that “80% remain firmly dependent on Welfare” at a cost of £50,000 per person per year, or “close to £500 billion” in total.
Although it’s not entirely clear from the wording of the post, it appears to be suggesting the cost is £500 billion per year, rather than the £500 billion being a cumulative cost since 1997. This is because, if 80% of the 12 million immigrants referenced in the post receive £50,000 per year, it does give a total of about £450 billion per year, which is “close to” £500,000.
But given that the total amount the DWP is forecast to spend on the social security system (benefits and pensions payments, for immigrants and non-immigrants) in Great Britain this financial year is £276.8 billion, this is clearly not correct.
Number of immigrants accessing benefits is unclear
It’s important to be clear that immigrants are not automatically entitled to access the welfare system upon arrival in the UK. People subject to immigration control and those allowed into the UK on the understanding that they are self-supporting have no recourse to public funds.
The DWP does not hold figures showing the number of immigrants receiving benefits or pension payments, or the average amount immigrants receive in benefit or pension payments each year.
An attempt to quantify the cost of immigration to the public should also include any direct or indirect contribution that immigrants make to the public finances by paying taxes or contributing to economic growth.
The immigration think tank, the Migration Observatory, has collected several examples of research attempting to quantify the effect on the economy of different kinds of immigration at different times. These show a range of net positive and net negative effects, though none suggest that the cost of immigrants to the economy is anywhere close to £500 billion.
Image courtesy of Sarah Agnew