In light of fears of further immigration following restrictions lifted on Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK, Nick Clegg has weighed in to endorse what he believes would be “eminently sensible” EU benefit changes.
The announcement, made by Clegg on BBC Radio 5 live, comes after Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said he was talking to other EU governments about trying to restrict access to welfare.
The discussion, by all three major parties, comes as talk of benefit tourism has resurfaced following the possibility of large-scale immigration from Romania and Bulgaria.
A three-month ban on EU migrants claiming out-of-work benefits came into force earlier this month, with David Cameron admitting the government are doing everything within the law to deter benefit tourism.
Many people really are worried about this. An EU report released late last year was jumped on by opponents of the EU, who used it to suggest that Britain could not afford to allow European migrants to come here any longer while continuing to provide a universal benefit system.
The 291-page report highlighted that the number of “non-active” EU migrants has risen by 42% since 2006 with the current annual cost of “non-active” EU migrants to the NHS estimated at £1.5 billion. This is in stark contrast with the £3.4 million cost to France’s health system.
The announcement by Clegg has been seen very much as a jump onto the political party bandwagon, with both Duncan Smith and the shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna contributing to the debate beforehand.
Umunna has suggested that Labour may be interested in restricting free movement within the EU for workers who do not have a firm offer of a job.
Likewise, Mr Duncan Smith said that the UK, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland want to change EU law. He told the Sunday Times that Britain was “right in the middle of a large group of nations saying enough is enough”.
While Mr Duncan Smith said the UK should require migrants to prove they are “committed to the country” and “contributing”, Mr Clegg believes it is right to insist migrants “jump through hoops” before claiming benefits.
Whether it is the offer of a firm job, as Labour are proposing, or a year or two year living period before the government considers individuals as residents of the UK, as Duncan Smith hopes for, there is growing demand for change.
Yet whether or not this change would be progressive, is a different matter. Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission, said that figures showed clearly that fears of ‘invasion’, or ‘benefit tourism’ are a “myth”, and suggested that the rhetoric used by the major political parties was designed to draw attention from the real problems the UK was facing.
Claims that EU migrants were coming to the UK “and stealing jobs, social security and health money” were untrue, Reding said. “Those who take out of the social security are more the nations, than the European citizens who take advantage of the free movement”.
Whether true or not, this will bring little comfort to many of the British public who are demanding a fairer and more robust benefit system to both British citizens and future migrants.