United Kingdom: Restricting 'Benefit Migration'

In the UK, intra-EU mobility has become a highly salient issue, beginning in the last decade. The British government immediately opened its labour markets to the citizens of Central and Eastern European countries acceding to the EU in 2004. While most other northwestern EU countries applied transition rules and restricted the access of Eastern Europeans to their labour markets, the openness of the British labour market attracted and absorbed more than half a million Eastern Europeans between 2004 and 2008 (Office for National Statistics UK 2015, 6; on the flexibility of labour markets in the EU, see Schwander this volume). In preparation for these newly arriving EU movers, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett distinguished between rightful EU movers coming to take up work and those who supposedly only came to claim benefits. Already in 2004, measures were adopted with the aim of pre-empting access to benefits of economically inactive EU citizens in the UK (Johns 2013, 99). The fear of ‘benefit tourism’ led to the introduction of the concept of ‘right to reside’ as a requirement for access to residence-based benefits such as jobseeker allowance, housing benefit, income support and tax benefits. Eligibility for benefits is not only dependent on habitual residence in the UK but also on the person’s right to reside there (Groenendijk 2013, 9-10). The right to reside can be acquired by all categories of EU movers falling within Directive 2004/38/EC. However, making claims for benefits dependent on the right to reside test takes initial entry and residence requirements as the threshold for benefits. Accordingly, a person who worked in the UK but became unemployed can be withheld a jobseeker allowance because the requirements for a right to reside as a worker cannot be met at the time of assessment (Larkin 2005, 436). It is quite obvious that the British government did not merely try to restrict access to benefits within the realm of EU law but violated Directive 2004/38/EC (Commission of the European Communities 2013). The Commission initiated an infringement procedure against the UK’s unfair discrimination against nationals from other member states. The requirement of a right to reside in addition to habitual residence for granting benefits is in breach of the EU citizenship directive (Groenendijk 2013, 11; Commission of the European Communities 2013).

The financial crisis in 2009 ended an economic boom in Britain. A recession followed in which entry and stay conditions of EU migrants were at the centre of a public debate. Aware of the government’s limited capacity to restrict EU mobility, media and politicians again emphasized access to welfare benefits as an incentive for EU citizens to move to the UK (Johns 2013, 105). The context to this debate was a conservative government under pressure from Eurosceptics in its own party and the UK Independence Party that pushed for leaving the EU in a popular vote. Among other topics, the loss of sovereignty in controlling EU movements and the claim of benefit tourism by EU citizens from Eastern Europe fuels anti-EU sentiments in the electorate. In the 2014 EP elections, the Eurosceptic party won by a landslide. Accordingly, it is not surprising that in 2014 the conservative British government responded to this populist pressure by further restricting EU movers’ access to benefits. In justifying the measures, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith declared:

These reforms will ensure we have a fair system—one which provides for genuine workers and jobseekers, but does not allow people to come to our country and take advantage of our benefits system. The British public are rightly concerned that migrants should contribute to this country and not be drawn here by the attractiveness of our benefits system. (UK Government 2014a)

The measures adopted aim at restricting access to the status of EU worker, self-employed or jobseeker. Some of the measures are comparable to the plans of the German government to more tightly scrutinize EU movers’ claims of self-employment or worker status. In this regard, the UK introduced a minimum earnings’ threshold. ‘Genuine and effective’ work must be undertaken at an income of at least ?153 a week for a period of three months. If the work undertaken does not meet this threshold, it can be considered ‘marginal and ancillary’. As a consequence, the status of worker or self-employed will not be granted; this change has consequences for individuals becoming eligible for housing benefits and income support. Further restrictions apply to EU migrants coming to the UK as jobseekers. According to EU legislation, jobseekers are exempt from the self-sufficiency requirement as a prerequisite to taking up residence in another EU member state (Directive 2004/38). In contrast to Germany, where unemployment benefits are contributory, in the UK the jobseeker allowance is non-contributory and applies to anyone residing in the country. Therefore, EU migrants with the status of EU jobseeker enjoyed the allowance in Britain but not in Germany. On 1 January 2014, the UK government introduced a delay of three months before EU jobseekers could claim this benefit. Also, jobseeker status and its benefit are cut after six months if no job prospects are in sight. In addition, the government cut the housing benefit for EU jobseekers. The strategy to introduce waiting periods for access to benefits also applies to economically inactive people claiming child allowance. This group of people can only obtain benefits after three months of residence (UK Government 2014b).

Summing up, the UK’s approach to restricting EU citizens’ access to its welfare system shows that some measures are in conflict with EU legislation and mean a considerable constraint on EU citizens’ social rights in the UK. Instead of aiming for equal treatment with nationals, the UK government draws new boundaries between its own and EU citizens. Again, empirical proof for benefit tourism or intentional abuse is hardly available, but the issue’s salience in the public and political debate seems to be justification enough for limiting the rights of EU migrants.

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