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Brexit or Bremain? Immigration and EU Membership

Written by Helen Williams.

At the core of many discussions about the UK’s referendum on EU membership and a possible Brexit is the issue of immigration. Objections to the freedom of movement enshrined in EU membership generally focus on five aspects:

  • The effect on public services;
  • The effect on the economy;
  • Britons who live elsewhere in the EU;
  • Questions of sovereignty; and
  • Differences of culture and values.

Here, I address the first of these: public services. I break this into the categories of benefits, housing, healthcare, and education, looking at each in turn.


Studies have consistently shown that EU nationals are less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals in the same circumstances. Despite widespread assertions that EU migrants are a drain on the UK’s public services, the evidence indicates otherwise. 2015 data from the DWP shows EU migrants accounted for 2.2% of DWP benefits claimants (but 6% of the UK population) and 7% of tax credits claimants. This amounted to 1.6% of UK  in-work benefits paid.

There are also anomalies in who is counted as a foreigner.  Roughly 1.1m Britons living in the UK have married foreign citizens. In statistics, these couples and any children are all classified as non-UK families, regardless of actual nationality. This makes benefit claims look much higher than they actually are. In fact, one in every nine families registered as ‘EU migrant couples’ in government statistics are actually composed of one Briton and one EU national.

Not only does this method of counting make it look like far more EU nationals are claiming benefits than actually are, it also has repercussions for British citizens’ access to benefits.


Another fear expressed about EU immigration is that they are putting strains on the housing market, especially by living in social housing. In actuality, EU immigrants are far less likely to be living in social housing or receive housing benefit. New restrictions on EU migrants’ access to housing benefit are estimated to save £10m out of £24bn, or 0.042% of the housing benefit bill – and it’s estimated to cost the government £10m a year to enforce the restrictions! This means that, by the government’s own estimates, the policy will not actually result in an increase in money available.

At the same time the government acknowledges that the changes will also affect British citizens returning from abroad, including some of the most vulnerable. For example, a woman returning to the UK following the break-up of her marriage abroad would not qualify for housing benefit under these rules; nor would a young person returning from a gap year or a year abroad.

Because the vast majority of EU migrants are living in private-sector housing, the greater concern is about whether this increase in demand is pushing up housing costs for locals. Here the evidence is very unclear. Migrants might push up housing costs through increased demand for housing in a particular area; but they might also push them down because UK-born residents tend to move out of areas with large migrant concentrations. Demand is also increased by overseas property speculation and changes in lifestyle that mean Brits are living in smaller family units.


The National Health Service is another public service that people frequently express concerns about with regards to immigration. People worry that increased immigration leads to longer waiting times for treatment by increasing demand. Instead, research indicates the opposite: waiting times drop in areas of greater migration because migrants tend to be younger and healthier. Government ministers have sought to stop ‘health tourism’.

The Department of Health’s research in 2013 put the estimated cost of ‘health tourism’ for all immigrants (not just EU migrants) at £60-80m per year. While this might sound like a lot of money, this represents 0.05-0.07% of the annual NHS budget. For comparison, the NHS spent £26m on gardening and £112.3m on aspirin and paracetamol tablets in roughly the same period.

For EU migrants who are temporarily resident in the UK, the UK can recoup the costs of any treatment from the migrant’s home country. EU migrants who are resident in the longer term access the NHS on the same terms as British residents. However, immigrants tend to use health services less than Brits. This is at least partly because EU migrants are, on average, younger than the British population, and younger people tend to use health services less.

The other side of EU migration and healthcare is the number of EU migrants who work in the NHS. Of health staff for whom nationality was known in January 2014, there were 40,504 migrants from other EU countries. This equates to 3.4% of total NHS staff. Of those with clinical qualifications (doctors, nurses, therapists, etc.), 4.4% were EU nationals.


EU migrants are less likely to have children than the general population when they arrive in the UK. If they stay more than five years, however, this picture begins to change. As the children enter the education system, they can put pressure on school places, but greater diversity improves pupil attainment.

If the Government’s plan for forced academisation by 2022 goes through, this could make competition for school places more intense. Currently, local governments can force schools under their authority to provide school places for pupils; under the current academy framework, academies cannot be forced to expand. This could lead to potential crises in areas with population growth, whether from internal movement, a baby boom, or immigration.

 From this evidence, it is clear that there are many misconceptions about EU migrants’ use of public services. While the evidence on some aspects is unclear (the effect on housing prices), it is clear that EU migrants draw surprisingly little from the state. Many of the negative effects with regards to housing and education could be offset by greater planning and responsiveness to changes in the local populations.

 A briefing document with summaries on all five themes is available here.

Helen Williams is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Published inBritish PoliticsEUEuropean Politics

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