ImmigrationEU migrants’ benefits and the U.K. EU-exit referendum

Published 17 March 2016

Ahead of Britain’s EU referendum, research will explore the experiences of EU migrants working in the United Kingdom, and attitudes to employment and social security – for which there is little empirical evidence, despite intense political rhetoric. An initial study suggests workers from the EU are significantly under-represented in employment tribunals.

A new Cambridge University research project is gathering “robust empirical evidence” on the experience of EU migrant workers in the United Kingdom, exploring everything from hopes and expectations to how they find work and what use EU migrants make of benefits.

The research is timely, as perceptions of EU migrants undercutting British workers or acting as “benefits tourists” are fueling much of the debate in the lead-up to June’s EU Referendum.

Some MPs are warning that Britain has become a “honeypot nation” with its social security system acting as a primary pull factor, leading to David Cameron’s negotiation of a so-called “emergency brake” on benefits for EU migrants.

However, critics argue that the government have been consistently unable to provide any evidence that this is the case. For example, last week’s response to a Parliamentary question on the amount spent on benefits to EU migrants was simply: “the information is not available.”

The EU Migrant Worker Project will aim to fill some of that knowledge gap. By combining interviews and focus groups with new methodologies for analyzing available data, the research team hope to build an evidential base for EU migrants’ experiences of and attitudes toward Britain’s employment and social security systems.

Cambridge U reports that the project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is led by Professor Catherine Barnard and Dr. Amy Ludlow from Cambridge’s Faculty of Law, and was launched on 26 February with a roundtable discussion involving Labor former Home Secretary Charles Clarke and current Conservative MP Heidi Allen among others.

Professor Barnard said: “We hope to shed new light on the big question of how we adequately regulate migration within a socio-economically diverse EU and a post-financial crisis context. This question is central to Brexit and to the outcome of the U.K.’s referendum on EU membership.”

Initial work has already been carried out, and a study published last October in the journal Industrial Law shows that EU migrants are using U.K. employment tribunals at much lower rates than would be expected relative to population size.

The study, the only one of its kind, is based on analysis of three years of Employment Tribunal decisions alongside field interviews. It suggests that migrant workers from EU-8 nations use employment tribunals over 85 percent less than would be expected, given the size of the workforce they represent.