Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves during an appearance on the BBC's Sunday Politics.
Show Hide image

Labour outflanks the Tories on immigrant benefits

Rachel Reeves suggests migrants should be denied welfare until they have contributed through the tax system. 

When David Cameron announced earlier this week that EU migrants would only be entitled to claim benefits for three months (after a waiting period of three months), Labour's main criticism was that it was too little, too late. Yvette Cooper said: "It's almost a year and a half since Labour called for benefit restrictions on new migrants. In that time we've had reannouncement after reannouncement from the Tories but little in the way of firm action."

Following this logic, Labour is now pushing for Cameron to go further. In her interview with the Sun on Sunday, Rachel Reeves suggests that migrants should be denied benefits until they have contributed through the tax system. 

"It isn’t right that somebody who has worked hard all their lives and has contributed to the system is entitled to only the same as somebody who has just come to this country, so we need to look at that," she says. "It shouldn’t be that you can draw on the system without having contributed."

As things stand, this change would likely fall foul of EU rules requiring parity of treatment between migrants and domestic workers. But Reeves suggests Labour would either "work with partners in Europe to reform the system", or "[change] our system so it is better based on contributions". The latter option would mean denying British citizens benefits unless they have contributed. 

Reeves's comments add to what is a large list of proposed EU reforms from Labour. Ed Balls told yesterday's Telegraph: "We have lots of rules that fetter movement. We think you should toughen up those rules. You shouldn’t be free to work in Britain and send back tax credits. You shouldn’t be free to come to Britain and be unemployed. You shouldn’t be free to come to Britain as soon as your country joins the EU" (he spoke not of "fair movement" but of "free movement"). 

The criticism from the Tories will be that none of this can be achieved without the threat of withdrawal provided by an in/out referendum (one that Boris Johnson today advises David Cameron to make explicit). But given Cameron's lack of success to date, most notably over Jean Claude-Juncker's appointment as EU commission president, Labour can reasonably argue that blackmail diplomacy won't work. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.