EU migrants may have to wait four years for UK benefits

The government plans to implement its promise to limit benefits for EU migrants still further. Why has it chosen this battle to fight?

Updated: 
EU Summit March 2015 second day

The government is working to make it harder to come to the UK from the EU and claim benefits. Its plan, outlined in the Conservative Party manifesto, is that on arrival, people would not be able to claim any benefits at all for the first four years. At that point, they will be able to make a claim, but once they have been in receipt of benefits for six months, if they haven't found work, they will be made to leave the country.

These kinds of restrictions are already in place for people coming to the UK from outside the EU, who are not allowed access to 'public funds' but can use public services such as the NHS and education. These restrictions stay in place until they are granted permanent residence - which requires them to live here for five years first. They are also in place for asylum seekers, who cannot get welfare benefits until they are granted refugee status (although they may be able to get less generous support through the Home Office).

Europe

Life isn't made easy for those coming to the UK from Europe either. Last year the government introduced rules that meant anyone arriving without work cannot receive jobseekers' allowance, child tax credit or child benefit until they have been here for three months. After that point, if they still haven't found work after another three months, and they cannot demonstrate a genuine prospect of being given work soon, they lose their benefits.

They also have to pass a 'habitual residence' test, which looks at the steps they have taken to establish themselves in the UK and find work. If they are working on arrival, they can claim things like tax credit and housing benefit, as long as their work is considered 'genuine and effective'.

Proposals

The new proposals will go much further, making EU migrants wait four years for benefits. The trouble they face in establishing these new rules is that EU law does not allow member states to impose these kinds of restrictions. So in order to introduce the change, the UK will have to renegotiate its treaty with Europe.

The Express reported that George Osborne had been in Brussels outlining the plans, and reported "constructive but firm" talks. There is a chance that they could secure this change: The Independent reported that during a joint-press-conference by David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she indicated some openness to changes around working age benefits for people without jobs.

Why?

The question of why the government is pushing for this change has a number of possible answers. First is the possibility that they believe benefits tourism is a serious problem. The trouble with this belief is that in February 2014, just 7.7% of working age people receiving key out-of-work benefits were non-UK nationals. This is despite the fact that they make up 16.2% of the working age population. It shows that people from overseas are less likely to be on benefits than people from the UK.

Another possible answer is that the government is aware that EU migrants are in fact much more likely to be claiming in-work benefits like tax credits. There's every chance that this is a major draw for people coming to the UK who are prepared to work, and are aware that if they do so, they can receive additional support from the government. The government is also aware that other European leaders have flatly refused to allow them to change the rules surrounding in-work benefits to make them less generous for EU nationals.

There is a possibility that at this stage they need to pick a fight they think they have a reasonable chance of winning against the EU - to demonstrate they have the power to redefine the country's relationship with Brussels ahead of the EU referendum. At the same time they wanted to pick a fight that will play well with those who are worried about immigration.

But what do you think? Is this a needlessly cynical interpretation of a bold step to tackle immigration? Let us know in the comments.

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