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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.