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.