On benefits and benefactions

headshot_jpegCatherine Barnard is Professor of European Union Law and Employment Law at Cambridge and Senior Tutor at Trinity College. She is involved in several projects about EU migrants to the UK and regularly speaks and writes about her research to public audiences as well as policy makers. This blog reflects her views and not the position of Trinity College or Cambridge University.

This is my first blog as the Senior Tutor of the College, a post I have held for a year. For most people this role is a mystery. To the students I sign letters, and to the Fellows I sign contracts. In fact, the job combines head teacher, chief executive and dogsbody. I am learning all the time. But some things have struck me forcefully since taking on the role.

©Warner Bros. Pictures
©Warner Bros. Pictures

The first is the extent to which Trinity has benefitted from the extraordinary generosity of our benefactors, from Henry VIII onwards. While Henry VIII may not have been a model husband, his vision for creating a successful College was ambitious and far-sighted. If he could see Trinity today I imagine he would have a sense of pride in founding not only the most successful but also the most generous college in Cambridge. For this is what has also struck me: just how generous Trinity is to other colleges and to other parts of the university.  For our strength lies in being part of the most successful university in the world. The University needs Trinity but Trinity needs to be part of a successful University.

One of the unexpected pleasures of being Senior Tutor are the unusual things that I get involved in. For three days in August 2014 the College was converted into a field hospital and the Man who Knew Infinity was filmed. This is the extraordinary story of the exceptional Indian mathematician, Ramanujan, who found a soulmate in Trinity Fellow, GH Hardy. A brilliant mathematical collaboration developed between Ramanujan and Hardy during the First World War. Dev Patel played Ramanujan, Jeremy Irons Hardy. Hollywood met Trinity – quite a sight. The film has its UK launch on 8 April. Trinity looks fantastic on screen.

Another perk of the job is to judge the Charles Grant Tennant prize for light or humorous verse. This involves dinner with the student judges, reading the entries and then a-less-than-learned discussion of each one to decide who should win the prize.

Charles Grant Tennant (pictured right) graduated in Classics in 1904. He was commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders in 1914. On 9 May 1915 he was killed in action at Aubers Ridge, leading his platoon in a charge from which only three survived. In his will Tennant left Trinity ‘the sum of £350 to be invested, and the interest thereon to be devoted to an annual prize to be awarded to the writer of the best copy of light verse.’

This year’s field was led by some excellent verse on the subject of Brexit. ‘A ballad for Brexit’ by Thea Dunne, narrated the story of how the UK, led by a flaxen-haired charmer, pulled up the drawbridge and ousted anything foreign:

Let’s wall ourselves away

Wouldn’t that be merry?

You know we all think

That foreigners are smelly

The ballad then described how the UK turned in on itself, with the North fighting the south:

They met at Whitby and fought on the beaches

Alan Bennett wrote and performed battle speeches.

All of this, 100 years after Charles Grant Tenant gave his life to save this country from the tyranny of a dominant power. And 60 years after the foundation of the European Union, whose formation was intended to ensure that Western countries would never again go to war against each other.

I was reflecting on this as I sat at the back of a cold, damp church in Peterborough recently, listening to a mass in Lithuanian. Part of my day job is to be Professor of EU law and I have received funding from  the Economic and Social Research Council for a research project, ‘Honeypot Britain?’ This examines whether benefits really are the pull factor bringing migrant workers to the UK. While my science colleagues travel to Hawaii and the Barbados, Honeypot researchers are spending a lot of time in Peterborough, Spalding and Boston, trying to talk to migrant workers. Some of them are deeply suspicious and reluctant to talk. They know that some British people resent their presence, resent the fact they are ‘taking British jobs’, and ‘taking their benefits’.

The stories migrants tell us are very different: they are here for work. Many migrants often do not know what benefits they are entitled to. A lot feel they do not deserve benefits; they want to stand on their own feet and they don’t claim what they are entitled to. That was the message the rather reticent Lithuanians gave us in the cold in Peterborough: they are here for work. The pay is better and so is the quality of life.

Yet the Prime Minister, David Cameron, tried to address the concerns expressed by (some) British people about ‘honeypot Britain’ in his new settlement negotiation last month. He got an emergency brake on in-work benefits and restrictions on the exportability of child benefit. And this enabled him to say that he could campaign for the ‘Remain’ side in the referendum campaign. The debate is intense and, at times, very personal. Cambridge law students are very interested in the subject, as demonstrated by the mini-referendum we recently held in the Law Faculty; so are the College staff and Fellows, a number of whom are from EU Member States. The stakes are exceptionally high. The outcome will have a significant effect on the College and University for years to come.

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