David Cameron made a fresh effort to assuage public concern about a wave of migration from Bulgaria and Romania on Tuesday when he announced a series of benefit restrictions on all EU migrant workers, including a ban on access to housing benefit for all new arrivals and a three-month ban before jobseeker’s allowance can be claimed.
Saying he shared the deep concerns of many in Britain at the EU’s requirement to lift transitional controls on Romanians and Bulgarians in January, he blamed “monumental” mishandling of the issue by the previous Labour government.
The package of restrictions announced late Tuesday was backed by the Tories’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, as sensible and reasonable.
The lifting in January of transitional controls on Bulgarians and Romanians entering the UK has prompted anxiety about the numbers likely to come and opinion polls showing that most Britons want migrants from the two countries barred from working.
In the package, Cameron announced:
• No newly arrived EU jobseekers will be able to claim housing benefit.
• No EU migrant will be entitled to out-of-work benefits for the first three months. In line with a previous announcement, no EU migrant from January will be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for more than a maximum of six months unless they can prove that they have a genuine prospect of employment.
• A new minimum earnings threshold will be introduced before benefits such as income support can be claimed.
• Any EU national sleeping rough or begging will be deported and barred from re-entry for 12 months “unless they can prove they have a proper reason to be here, such as a job”.
He also announced a fourfold increase in the fine for employers failing to pay the minimum wage, to £20,000, although critics have claimed the problem lies in lack of enforcement rather than the level of the fine.
The package comes on top of proposals in the immigration bill to require EU migrants to pay for the use of the NHS.
The issue of free movement of workers in the EU, a cardinal principle of the European Union’s single market, is likely to dominate the European parliament elections in the summer.
Downing Street is confident that its own package of restrictions announced Tuesday does not fall foul of EU law, a view supported by the pro-European Nick Clegg. The deputy prime minister said: “These are sensible and reasonable reforms to ensure that the right to work does not automatically mean the right to claim. Other countries in the EU already have similar policies and are considering the case for going further. Unfettered access to benefits across member states simply does not exist.”
Some Tory MPs are unlikely be satisfied with the package. A group of 40 Tory backbenchers are already calling for the immigration bill, currently in the Commons, to be toughened up so that the existing transitional controls on Romanians and Bulgarians are retained until 2018, a move that would put the UK at loggerheads with the European Union.
Cameron also called for a wider settlement on the free movement of workers, an issue that is bound to feature in any Conservative renegotiation of British EU membership.
In an article for the Financial Times, Cameron writes: “We need to face the fact that free movement has become a trigger for vast population movements caused by huge disparities in income. That is extracting talent out of countries that need to retain their best people and placing pressure on communities.
“It is time for a new settlement which recognises that free movement is a central principle of the EU, but it cannot be a completely unqualified one.
“We are not the only country to see free movement as a qualified right: interior ministers from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have also said this to the commission.”
He also condemned Labour’s “monumental mistake” in failing to control immigration from Eastern Europe as he spelled out new measures to stop EU citizens coming here to live off benefits.
He said it had been a catastrophic failure on Labour’s part not to impose transitional controls on new EU members in 2004, a failure that had led to a surge in immigration, with one million people from central and Eastern Europe now living in the UK. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary acknowledged at the weekend that Labour had allowed immigration to grow too far and too fast.
Cameron writes: “In 2004, the Labour government made the decision that the UK should opt out completely of transitional controls on the new EU member states. They had the right to impose a seven-year ban before new citizens could come and work here, but–almost alone in Europe—Labour refused it. That was a monumental mistake,” he said.
The PM said Labour made matters worse by failing to learn any lessons when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007.
“That was the moment to address difficult questions about when to allow new entrants full access to each others’ labour markets – but the Labour government ducked these questions. That is why this government extended transitional controls on Bulgaria and Romania from five to the maximum seven years,” he said.
Cameron also said he would like to like the EU to tackle long term how it prevented “fresh surges of immigration in future when countries join the EU”. The big concern is Turkey.
He said: “One would be to require a new country to reach a certain share of average EU GDP per head before full free movement was allowed. Individual member states could be freed to impose a cap if their inflow from the EU reached a certain number in a single year,” he said.
The number of EU migrants claiming jobseekers allowance in February 2013 was estimated at 60 100, according to government statistics.