MPs debated immigration from Bulgaria and Romania yesterday. Secured by Nigel Mills, it was held not in the House of Commons but as a sideshow in Westminster Hall – thus avoiding the awkward matter of a vote at the end.

The easy bit was benefit tourism. On this matter there was general agreement – at least among Conservative MPs – that it is unacceptable and the Government should put a stop to it, even if means some kind of dispute with the European Union.

Douglas Carswell said:

The United Kingdom is one of only five European Union member states with a system in which non-contributory unemployment benefits are paid to people looking for work. Surely we cannot have totally unrestricted movement of people within the EU and retain our system of non-contributory unemployment benefits. At the same time, the European Commission is pushing to ensure that all EU nationals have the same rights as British nationals to claim non-contributory payments in this country.

Some on the Left respond to the issue of benefit tourism by claiming it doesn’t exist – or only does so on a tiny scale. However, last weekend the Sunday Times reported(£) that 121,000 people in the UK from other EU countries are on benefits. The true figure may well be higher. In any event it is not a trivial burden on the British taxpayer.

However, let us suppose that the benefits tourism problem could be entirely solved. Freedom of movement would remain controversial on the grounds that those coming here “take our jobs”. Several Conservative MPs voiced that concern, to some extent, in the debate yesterday.

John Baron said:

“My experience is that the vast majority come here to work, and they work hard. They come not because of the benefits, but because the average salary here is so much higher than in their home country.”

Nigel Mills said:

“I accept that most of them chose to come here to work, but that leaves us with the fundamental question of how to deal with that when unemployment in this country is still far higher than we would like.”

Andrew Bridgen said of his unemployed constituents:

“The last thing that they need is competition from another wave of immigrants“.

Balanced against that was some acceptance of the point that there have been British people who have found it preferable to remain on welfare benefits rather than take on certain types of jobs – either because they are low paid or unappealing for some other reason.

Yet let us suppose that our domestic welfare reforms resolve that problem – by providing an incentive and an obligation for those able to work to do so. The “taking our jobs” line of reasoning would still be flawed.  It is another version of the “zero sum game” fallacy. It rests on the notion that we have a static economy with a fixed total of jobs to be allocated. It comes back to the thinking of Thomas Malthus on population. But just because the population increases, it doesn’t mean that there is more unemployment or reduced wages. It does not follow that there is a fixed amount of wealth or employment that must be more thinly spread. That is not the way wealth creation works. If immigrants are working they will be contributing – spending money and paying taxes. They may be sending some of their money back home. On the other hand the tax they are paying helps to pay for pensions and social care for retired British people.

This is not to say that there aren’t non-economic arguments about immigration. Just like any other country, we have concerns about nationality, cohesion, allegiance, values. cultural differences. Do the new arrivals speak English, or if not are they willing to learn? Do they accept the rule of law?

As welfare benefits are tightened up, the real debate is about the numbers that can be absorbed while national identity is retained.

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