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Charlotte O'Brien*

Amid the frenzied campaigns, and chaotic aftermath, of the UK’s EU referendum, we’ve seen a trend emerge for ‘post-truth politics.’ In no area has this been more pronounced than in discussion of free movement.

The pre-2015 pillorying of EU nationals

The leaders of the Remain campaign were victims of their own successful project of misdirection. It wasn’t a Leave campaigner who published a piece headed ‘Free movement within Europe needs to be less free’ in the Financial Times – it was the Prime Minister. It wasn’t a Leave campaigner who published a piece describing the ‘magnetic pull of Britain’s benefit system’ in The Telegraph – it was the Prime Minister. It wasn’t UKIP, Vote Leave, or Leave.EU that issued press releases mentioning ‘rogue EU benefit claims’, the need for ‘tough new rules’ to stop migrants taking ‘advantage of the British benefits system’, or the need to make ‘clear that abuse and clear exploitation of the UK’s welfare system will not be tolerated.’ It was the government. This is striking rhetoric. An employer could not announce a wish to pander to its customers’ discriminatory preferences. Yet the government engaged in a programme of declaratory discrimination, in which the declarations took the form not only of government press releases but of actual laws, so creating what might be termed declaratory obstacles to movement - in announcing its intention to reduce immigration from the EU.

And other parties joined the chorus – former-MEP Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats was reported to set out ‘plans to curb benefits to EU migrants’, while Labour’s Yvette Cooper claimed that the ‘scale and pace’ of EU migration made it a problem, and Labour’s Rachel Reeves set out proposals to exclude EU migrants from out-of-work benefits for two years, cutting in-work tax credits to EU migrants and ending the “absurdity” of exporting child benefits.

This kind of posturing, creating an odd, cross-bench consensus, formed the backdrop to the punitive reforms rolled out in 2014 to target EU national benefit claimants. The changes included redefining ‘work’ so as to reduce the likelihood of those in part time-work of having a right to reside and thus access to benefits. The new test is, in theory, a two-tier test, firstly imposing a Minimum Earnings Threshold, and for those who do not meet the threshold, a ‘genuine and effective’ test is used. But the new approach has been marketed as a ‘Minimum Earnings Threshold’ not as a genuine and effective test, and findings from the EU Rights Project suggest a risk of the threshold being treated as all-but determinative, with workers doing variable hours, or in low security or low pay work, hitherto recognised as workers, now at risk of being re-defined as not-workers. There is no sliding scale in the Minimum Earnings Threshold for people with reduced work capacity, such as lone parents or disabled workers. This shift had not only immediate but also retrospective effect, so those seeking to rely on past work, to establish, for instance, a right to permanent residence, might find themselves being told that their work had never really been work. The measure was ‘part of the government’s long term plan to… reduce immigration’ – once again, a declaratory obstacle to movement.

The consequences can be dramatic, given the other changes within the benefits system, not least the stripping of Housing Benefit from those deemed to be jobseekers, so low-paid workers may find themselves re-categorised as jobseekers, and so disentitled from Housing Benefit – leading to struggles to pay the rent, and risks of homelessness. These changes were conspicuously unencumbered with supporting evidence on savings to be made – the impact assessment of the Housing Benefit changes noted the possibility that Local authorities would pick up the tab for preventing homelessness among families. Meanwhile, The Daily Mail complained that changes restricting EU nationals’ rights to jobseekers allowances were ‘unlikely to have a big impact on migration as most migrants don’t claim.’

The New Settlement: Groupthink and evasion

In November 2015, three months before launching a pro-EU referendum campaign, David Cameron was publicly criticising free movement, describing the ‘pressures… on our schools, our hospitals and our public services’ as ‘too great’. The problem, he said in his letter to Donald Tusk, was ‘one of scale and speed’ and current net migration was ‘not sustainable’. In sum, he said ‘we need to go further to reduce the numbers coming here… we can reduce the flow of people coming from within the EU by reducing the draw that our welfare system can exert across Europe.’ Again, we see declaratory discrimination and declaratory obstacles to movement.

Both the receipt of in-work benefits, and the exportation of child benefits were key focal points of revision in David Cameron’s proposed ‘New Settlement’ with the EU.

The EU Commission, to some degree, colluded in the free movement counter-factualism, appending its own statement to settlement noting that the UK had provided ‘“the kind of information [that]… shows the type of exceptional situation’ that would justify a benefit brake to EU workers ‘exists in the United Kingdom today’. Without enlightening us as to the nature of that pivotal information.

Benefit exportation is an odd focal point – not only because the rationale for receiving benefits where one pays contributions is clear, but also because migrants who have left their families in another Member State actually represent something of a bargain – it is another State meeting the costs of their children’s education, health costs, and social care costs and other public infrastructure costs.

As for the more general targeting of EU nationals as some source of leaking public funds – the evidence never did stack up.  As The Financial Times noted, everyone was ‘attempting to out-UKIP UKIP’. Politicians were not only falling over themselves in the rush to join the EU-migrant-blaming game, they were sidestepping the inconvenient question of evidence. And the evidence – against the idea that EU migrants were benefit tourists, or against the idea that free movement costs jobs and/or is a drain on public services, was plentiful. I’ve described this process as an act of Groupthink  - a social psychological phenomenon in which a group agree upon their reality and adopt mechanisms to screen out dissent and contrary evidence. The guiding principle, it seems, was to second-guess public perception of a free movement problem, and to reproduce and amplify that perception, and protect it from any pesky reality check. 

Impacts of free movement – the evidence

The evidence, including a major study by the UCL Centre for Research and Analysis on Migration, suggests that EU nationals in the UK are net contributors. Oxford University’s Migration Observatory concluded that the more recent the migrant’s arrival, the more likely the positive contribution. ONS figures show that EU nationals are less likely than UK nationals to be unemployed. The EU Commission’s studies in 2013 and 2014 also found that free movement was beneficial to the UK, the earlier report noting that there Department of Work and Pensions had reported that there was no evidence of benefit tourism.

As for the belief that free movement costs UK nationals their jobs, the Migration Advisory Committee found in 2012 that for every 100 EU nationals working in the UK, there were no corresponding losses of UK nationals’ jobs. There has been no evidence found to link EU migration with increased NHS waiting times, or pressure on health services generally, or pressure on schools.

The government’s own Balance of Competences review received a wealth of authoritative evidence to suggest that free movement was not a problem, was not leading to benefit tourism, was not creating undue pressure on public services, and should not be materially changed. Much of this evidence was buried, perhaps because it did not accord with the official reformist policy at the time, through an abysmal report that made little pretence of representing the evidence submitted to it, (for example ignoring entirely a submission made by the Scottish government) instead relying upon a source-free opinion piece as its evidential backbone.

And so now we face a Brexit landscape in which retaining free movement is treated as by default a non-starter. But that is not necessarily so. To put it bluntly, as a social science researcher, that is not the question that was asked. Moreover, a popular suspicion of free movement should not in itself be decisive, not least when stoked by politicians with a cavalier approach to research. The job of experts and academics cannot now be to swim with the tide. The evidence does not go away or change just because superstition is in vogue. Many decisions lie ahead, about free movement and the rights of already resident EU nationals. We need to try to re-inject a modicum of respect for evidence in these proceedings, if, at a crucial cross-roads, we are to avoid plummeting into prejudice-based policy. 

* University of York