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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?

Prime Minister David Cameron at a property where six illegal immigrants were arrested this week. Photo: Getty

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?

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