Welfare is already tight for immigrants in the UK. Photo: Flickr/Paul
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Cameron welcomes EU court "benefit tourism" ruling, but what exactly are migrants entitled to here?

The European Court of Justice allows EU states to restrict benefits to out-of-work EU migrants, but welfare is already tight for all immigrants here.

The European Court of Justice has ruled this week that EU member states will have the power to block certain benefits for migrants who are not jobseeking. The idea is for EU countries to be given the ability to deny unemployment hand-outs to those EU citizens who can be deemed "economically inactive".

It has been called a crackdown on "benefit tourism", a common concern about immigration in Britain, in spite of the fact that EU migrants travel here overwhelmingly for work and study reasons, and are in the great majority of cases successful in finding employment.

David Cameron, under great pressure to reduce our net migration level, has welcomed this ruling, calling it "simple common sense". And the website PoliticsHome is reporting that senior MEPs have told the Prime Minister that there is now no need to pursue major changes to EU free movement principles, which were to be central to his renegotiation of Britain's EU membership status.

However, defying the perception of Britain being particularly generous to its non-UK born residents, the welfare situation here is already very tight for all immigrants.

The government has recently introduced harsher rules for what EU migrants can receive. These include jobseekers from the European Economic Area (EEA) – predominantly migrants from EU states – having to wait three months before they can claim for Jobseekers’ Allowance. This is the same for accessing child benefit and child tax credits.

To stay longer than three months, they have to be in work, actively seeking work, or have a genuine chance of being hired. Either that, or they have to prove that they have the resources to remain without being a burden on public services.

EU migrants cannot automatically claim benefits after three months here. They have to pass a “habitual residence test” under EU law. This covers the individual’s status regarding their duration of stay, activity, income if they are a student, family status, and housing situation. Even if they pass this, they can then only claim Jobseekers’ Allowance for six months – after that, only those with a job offer or proof they are likely to find work are allowed to continue claiming.

On top of the tests required under EU law, the UK applies an additional test: the “Right to reside”. This limits certain benefits. The European Commission sees this as an unfair extra hurdle and has referred the UK to the EU’s Court of Justice on the matter.

However, it is a tougher situation for migrants from non-EU countries, who – to use the official language – do not have recourse to public funds until they have been a UK resident for five years. This means benefits alone are unlikely to be a realistic incentive for those travelling to the UK from outside the EU. Most are allowed to enter the UK for a limited period on condition that they don’t receive benefits. However, they are eligible for homelessness assistance when in accordance with government immigration and asylum policy.

But even those immigrants who arrive seeking asylum are not given an easy ride by the UK government. According to the DWP, asylum seekers are subject to immigration control and are excluded from claiming benefits. However, they receive cash benefits from the Home Office (known as s.95 support), at £36 per week. This hand-out was famously derided by the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, at a recent Home Affairs select committee hearing, claiming such benefits made asylum seekers see Britain as “El Dorado”.

If they are granted leave to remain by the Home Office, they are then allowed to reside in the UK either temporarily or permanently, and hence entitled to work and claim in benefits.

If, upon arrival, they are unable to support themselves and their family, while their application is being considered, they may be eligible for financial support to buy essentials, and to live in suitable housing. If they are granted housing, they have no choice about where to live, and it won’t be in London or the Southeast. A private company, Serco, is contracted by the government to house asylum seekers. Being a profit-making organisation, it inevitably chooses the cheapest housing for them, which means that there are certain, usually deprived, areas in Britain where a disproportionate number of asylum seekers settle, causing tensions in some already troubled communities.

Since 2005, most people recognised as refugees (a person is officially a refugee when they have their claim for asylum accepted by the government) have been given permission to stay in the UK for only five years, and can have their case reviewed at any time.

So, given the tough situation in the UK for migrants in terms of welfare, and the European Court of Justice simultaneously cracking down, the Prime Minister may have little more to gain if he continues pushing against the principle of free movement that is at the EU's core.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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