David Cameron yesterday announced a series of benefit restrictions on all EU migrant workers, including a ban on access to housing benefit for all new arrivals and a three-month ban before jobseeker’s allowance can be claimed. Pic from Flickr, under Creative Comms licence (fdecomite)
The announcement comes in response to public concern over the ending of transitional controls on Romanians and Bulgarians coming to the UK from the 31st December 2013. Opinion polls apparently show that most Britons want migrants from these two countries barred from working, and are anxious about the numbers who may arrive at these shores in 2014 and beyond.
In the package, Cameron announced:
- No newly arrived EU jobseekers will be able to claim housing benefit.
- No EU migrant will be entitled to out-of-work benefits for the first three months. No EU migrant will be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for more than a maximum of six months unless they can prove that they have a genuine prospect of employment.
- A new minimum earnings threshold will be introduced before benefits such as income support can be claimed.
- Any EU national sleeping rough or begging will be deported and barred from re-entry for 12 months “unless they can prove they have a proper reason to be here, such as a job”.
This latest missive comes on top of proposals in the immigration bill requiring EU migrants to pay for the use of the NHS. Cameron, seemingly bolstered by the support such a stance appears to enjoy with British voters, has also called for a wider settlement on the free movement of workers.
But are the problems as foreseen by Cameron and others likely to become a reality? And do the proposals actually add much to the existing restrictions in place anyway?
There has been an open border with Romania and Bulgaria since 2007, with nationals of these two states having the same rights to enter and reside in the UK as other European Economic Area nationals (EEA). This has so far, though politicians and the right wing press would have you believe otherwise, not created a huge problem to the UK benefit system. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, in a study commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, found that of the 100,000 or so Bulgarians and Romanians immigrants currently in the UK, most were relatively young, without families, and their primary motivation was to find work. Their ‘drain’ on the UK’s social security and social assistance schemes was therefore negligible. They also highlighted that the impact on the UK economy and labour market, once the transitional arrangements end, is likely to be small, but also broadly positive.
Despite the dog whistling from people like Jack Straw and David Blunkett, the numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals coming to the UK whilst uncertain, is not likely to increase exponentially as they did for instance in 2004 with Polish nationals. This is partly because now that the transitional arrangements across Europe are coming to an end, such nationals will be free to work across Europe. It is also reasonable to conclude, given the open border since 2007, that any such nationals who had a burning desire to come to the UK would have done so by now. Finally and for all sort of reasons, geography, language, and cultural similarity, it is likely that in terms of a ‘destination of choice’ countries like Italy, Spain and Germany may seem a better and more welcoming fit.
In terms of the proposals, I remain to be convinced about the government’s claim that they are all entirely lawful and in line with the Free Movement of Persons Directive 2004/38 EC which sets out the right of EEA nationals and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the EEA Member States, a Directive transposed into UK law by the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006.
The corollary of a right to enter and to work is the right to remain for a reasonable time while looking for a job. And certainly the European Court of Justice has generally sought to remove unjustified obstacles to freedom of movement resulting from member states adopting different laws on social security.
However, putting to one side any legal arguments, from a practical and economic perspective the government is not, in my view, being entirely honest in the cost of benefits and how they operate when it comes to migrants.
According to Downing Street aides, some immigrants can access Jobseeker’s Allowance within a month of arrival in the UK and ‘social tourism’ is a massive problem for the economy. The Government’s own figures for 2011/12 don’t support this.
Only 7% of those claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Incapacity Benefit or Income Support were ‘foreigners’ and only 31% of those were from within the EU.
Also, take a benefit like Job Seekers Allowance and you’ll discover that the government is very reluctant to explain that when someone arrives in the UK (or in another country), it is actually the home country which in the first place covers the cost, not the receiving country. Also that JSA is only available to someone who has worked in the UK previously.
Public confidence in migration may be low. However it is worth repeating over and over again, not least because this is an area so easily manipulated for political ends, that free movement has been beneficial for the UK. A University College London report earlier this month found that immigrants had contributed £25bn to the UK economy between 2000 and 2011 – significantly more than they had claimed in handouts. They were also 45% less likely to receive benefits than British people.
As Aldous Huxley said facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.