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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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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