Prime Minister David Cameron at a property where six illegal immigrants were arrested this week. Photo: Getty
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Cameron's crackdown on migrant benefits is too little, too late to help him

Has the government's series of changes to European rules been too slow, and too limited, to convince the public that Britain should remain in the EU?

The Prime Minister’s announcement this week that he will slash the time period during which EU immigrants are entitled to benefits was welcomed by the Tory right and Eurosceptics of all tribes.

On Tuesday David Cameron announced plans to halve the period over which European migrants can claim benefits from six months to three, unless the migrants have “very clear job prospects”.

Other measures announced included tougher rules on universities which sponsor visas for international students to study in the UK and stipulations that recruiters must publicise all British jobs in the UK – in English – and not only tout them abroad.

The latest wave of reforms follow another crackdown on migrants last November, when the government declared plans to implement a three month “qualification period” before EU immigrants could begin to claim out-of-work benefits in the UK.

That announcement itself followed rule changes for migrants declared in May last year: a “right to reside” test applied to EU migrants to assess certain welfare benefits.

The reforms have been metered out in a slow, drip-like fashion. While the latest round was cheered in many quarters, this piecemeal series of concessions throws up troubling questions for the government.

The first concerns the scope of the changes. Are they significant enough to quieten restive anti-EU factions? While this week’s headline reform – halving the time period during which migrants can claim benefits – sounds impressive, it is, of course, subject to fine print.

And that reveals that it only covers job seekers’ allowance, child tax credit and child benefit, and applies only to new arrivals to Britain who have never worked here; those who have worked in Britain for six months automatically achieve “worker status”, which, according to EU rules, entitles them by law to certain social security and assistance. So the new rules will affect a relatively small proportion of EU migrants to the UK.

Many of the government’s headline-grabbing reforms appear similarly diminished when examined. The limited scope of these reforms pours fuel on the fire of the Eurosceptics’ argument that significant unilateral reform of EU rules is impossible. Given that reform at EU-level looks even equally difficult (appetite among other nations is weak), the future of Britain’s membership of the EU appears increasingly shaky.

The second question is perhaps more awkward for the government. Given rising public anger about, and an obsession in Westminster with, migrants’ access to benefits since 2010, why did the government not implement these, albeit limited, reforms earlier?

Unwillingness to be dragged into legal wranglings with the European Commission may have been a delaying factor. If so, that fear was founded: the Commission has already announced its intention to investigate the legality of the UK’s three-month limit for benefits this week.

Cameron has not ducked legal battles with the EU in the past, however. The Commission referred the UK to the European court of Justice last May over the “right to reside” test, for example. (In that instance, the Commission argued that the test was impermissible because it discriminated against non-British Europeans, since British citizens automatically passed the test.)

The question of why the government did not act earlier becomes even more confusing, when the right of EU nations’ governments to restrict, in certain ways, the entitlement of migrants to welfare seems enshrined in EU treaties already.

Amid the dense, highly technical stipulations of EU Directive 2004/38, for example, is Article 24, which states: “The host Member State shall not be obliged to confer entitlement to social assistance during the first three months of residence”.

Then, later: “It should be left to the host Member State to decide whether it will grant social assistance during the first three months of residence, or for a longer period in the case of job-seekers, to Union citizens other than those who are workers or self-employed persons”.

The long wait for reforms and their limited scope prompt the question: are these changes too little, too late to convince rightwing Conservatives, and the public at large, that genuine and significant reform of EU rules are possible in Britain?

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.