The imminent lifting on restrictions on free movement for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals to live and work in the UK continues to spark controversy as the government pledges to limit EU immigrant access to benefits.
Plans are already being pushed forward to introduce a range of harsh measures that include the ability to cut the rights of EU immigrants to claim housing benefit or job seekers allowances and the fast tracking of powers to deport migrants who are found to be homeless. Alarm has already been expressed by European Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor, warning against hysteria and that the UK risked a significant fall in reputation as a “nasty country”.
In a Financial Times article this week, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, claimed that the previous government’s policy of not restricting access to a previous opening of employment borders to ten countries, including Poland, had been a “monumental mistake” and that a future Conservative government would seek more discretion over the implementation of migration-related policies as part of their efforts to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the European Union.
The specific measures announced in his plans include:
- New migrants being unable to claim for any housing benefit immediately.
- A three month delay on new migrants being able to claim on any job seekers allowance or other out of work benefits.
- Benefits payments to migrants being limited to only six months, unless there is a “genuine” chance of a job – though the details of how that assessment can be made during an economic downturn remain hazy.
- Automatic deportation for any migrant found to be begging or to be homeless, with a bar on return of a year being set on their record.
- A quadrupling of fines levied against employers who do not pay the minimum wage – aiming to crack down on those taking advantage of unskilled low wage workers who will take any employment no matter how low it is.
The hope seems to be that a future Conservative government will be able to cut a deal with similarly minded EU counterparts such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to argue for limits on new arrivals above certain levels and on limitations on movement for people from countries where the average income is below an arbitrary EU average wage.
These are hugely controversial suggestions, and it is unclear as to which of these measures would require new legislation and which would merely be different implementations of existing agreements and laws.
The proposals have been called an over-reaction by Mr Andor, who points out that the regulations apply equally to all 28 members of the EU, including the UK – and covered UK citizens’ rights to travel and work in other countries as well. In an interview with the BBC’s Today programme, he warned that a dismantling of those rules was likely to lead to a “slippery slope” and pointed out that there were already rules and safeguards in place to prevent “benefit tourism”. He pointed out the huge boosts already received by the UK economy by work undertaken by migrants from Poland and other nations, and called for a more accurate and measured presentation of the facts without resort to hysteria or pressure. The expected numbers of migrants are as yet unknown, with estimates ranging from 8,000 to 50,000 people over the next five years. The truth seems to be that no one really knows yet.