The lack of an agreed definition about who counts as a benefits ‘tourist’ makes it very hard to discuss the subject with any real clarity. One definition would be someone who travels with the primary objective of acquiring benefits, but there are no useful data on motivations of this sort, and it would be difficult to devise an accurate means of collecting such data.
Non-EU migrants do not have recourse to public funds until they have been resident in the UK for 5 years, so benefits alone are not realistic as the primary motivation for non-EU migrants to travel to the UK.
So the easiest way of beginning to identify the potential scale of ‘benefits tourism’ as an issue is to look at the use of benefits by EU migrants.
The UK’s membership of the European Union means that citizens of EU countries who come to the UK do have access to its welfare system on essentially equal terms with British citizens, which could arguably provide a motivation for some to travel to the UK.
Table 1 outlines how many EU migrants are in the UK, their employment rate, their use of working age benefits and claims for Jobseekers Allowance, and the number who are economically inactive – which would also include groups such as stay-at-home mothers, children, students and retired people. It also shows sub-categories corresponding to EU member states prior to 2004 (EU-14 or ‘old EU’), and new ‘accession’ member states joining in 2004 or later, including the A8 (Eastern European countries joining in 2004) and A2 (Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007 although their nationals only gained full access to the UK labour markets in 2014). The complete list of post 2004 “accession” states also includes Cyprus and Malta– more recent data would also include Croatia.