The claim

“All you have to do now if you come from Eastern Europe, all you have to do is to get a national insurance number – which you can get easily within a fortnight – and then you qualify automatically for social housing”

UKIP leader Nigel Farage, BBC Question Time, 26 April 2012

The background

It’s the “real story” that Nigel Farage claimed nobody on the Question Time panel would want to discuss.

The UK Independence Party leader said the shortage of social housing in parts of London was due to the number of immigrants hailing mainly from Eastern Europe.

On day one, these immigrants qualify for social housing he said. But the Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes did want to discuss Mr Farage’s real story – and he said it wasn’t true.

Who’s right? It’s Answer Time with FactCheck.

The analysis

Firstly, as a House of Commons Library research note points out; “It is worth noting at the outset that there is no general entitlement to social housing for anyone in England, including British citizens.”

Just like British people, those from abroad have to meet the criteria. “Foreign nationals do not get any extra priority”, the HoC Library notes.

EU nationals don’t need a work permit and have the right to freedom of movement within the EU. But to qualify for social housing they must be employed.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government told FactCheck: “Since 2006, European economic area nationals have been, broadly speaking, eligible for local authority housing if they are working lawfully, are self-sufficient or have a permanent right of residence (following five years lawful residence).”

There are some exceptions, such as students, but they will have to pass the “habitual residence test”.

Eastern Europeans are categorised as migrants from ‘A8’ countries – which are: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Until last year, A8 migrants had to prove they were working and had to register on the Worker Registration Scheme (WRS) in order to be eligible for social housing. Although they no longer have to register on the WRS, they are now in the same position as other EU nationals – who have to prove they are habitually resident and have a right to reside – i.e. are working, self-sufficient, a former worker and so on.

Anyone who just tips up without a job is highly unlikely to prove their “right to reside” – even if they do get a National Insurance number (which if you are unemployed takes months to come through, not weeks, FactCheck understands).

Past research by the homeless charity Shelter has found that while even under the old rules, A8 workers would have been eligible, they “scarcely gained access to social housing at all”.

In 2006/07 less than 1 per cent of all housing association lettings were to A8 nationals.

Overall, EU migrants are much more likely to live in the private rental sector. Around 90 per cent of people who arrived in the UK from 2006-2008 were living in private rentals,  according to a report from the Migration Impacts Forum in 2008.

Furthermore, a TUC-commissioned survey in 2007 found that more than 40 per cent of migrants working +48 hour weeks were in accommodation provided through their employer – with the rent taken from their wages for accommodation often in very poor condition.

The verdict

Nobody automatically qualifies for social housing – not even born-and-bred Brits.

Like everyone else, EU migrants have to apply for it – but they have to prove they have the “right to reside” – which is not an automatic right and would be extremely difficult for anyone without a job. Plus, getting hold of a National Insurance number without a job would take months.

Meanwhile, statistics show that around 90 per cent of people who arrived in the UK from the EU between 2006-08 lived in privately rented accommodation.

So Mr Farage is wrong to link the chronic lack of social housing in London with the flow of Europeans into the capital.

And he digs an even deeper hole for himself by singling out Eastern Europeans –  because until last year people from these ‘A8’ countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) had even less rights to social housing than those from the older member states.

Indeed, figures show that less than 1 per cent of all social housing was let to A8 nationals in 2006-07.

By Emma Thelwell

*this article has been updated slightly to reflect the changes of May 2011 which altered the status of A8 nationals. The verdict however remains unchanged.