Another day, another story about Britain cracking down on the apparent menace of benefit tourism. As ever, smoke and mirrors abound.
Today’s Telegraph splashed on a tougher new test for migrants who try to claim out-of-work benefits, as announced by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
For the first time, migrants who want to claim will be asked about their proficiency in English when interviewed by staff at the job centre.
Mr Duncan Smith said: “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. And we are taking action to ensure that that is the case.”
Almost every news outlet that covered this story suggested that the move will put the government on collision course with the European Commission, who are already threatening legal action.
But the truth is a little different.
Will you have to ‘speak English or lose benefits’?
That was the Telegraph’s headline this morning, and it was the gist of many more, but the government says it simply isn’t true.
It’s right to say that the question of English ability will be raised with migrants for the first time, but there’s no written test to sit, no minimum standard required, and no one will be denied benefits on their language skills alone.
The government has expanded the “habitual residency test” (HRT), adding more than 100 possible questions that job centre staff can ask when trying to establish whether a migrant has the right to access certain benefits.
The idea is that we want to establish whether someone coming here to look for work has a realistic chance of getting a job.
Only one of these questions concerns language. Migrants will be simply be asked whether their English language skills will be a barrier to them finding employment.
A cynic might predict that many claimants will answer “no” to that question, truthfully or not, and in the absence of a formal test, it will be difficult to prove them wrong.
Even if they say “yes – my English could be a problem”, that doesn’t mean they automatically fail the test. It’s possible that someone might admit that their English is bad, but they want to work somewhere where they don’t need to do much talking, so it doesn’t matter.
Or they might convince the Jobcentre interviewer that they are taking steps to improve their English.
In any event, it’s the answers to all the questions that matter, not just the question of language.
A DWP spokesman told us: “When reaching decisions on whether someone passes the HRT, decision-makers look at all of the answers and all of the evidence given by the applicant. Not speaking English will not automatically mean someone fails the HRT.”
Will this get us into trouble with Europe?
Actually today’s announcement has not been greeted with howls of outrage from the European Commission, the body in charge of deciding whether member states are complying with EU law (and punishing those that flout it).
The commission told us it never makes official comments on announcements by national governments until it has full details and has had time to analyse them. It has not issued any condemnation of the new policy and is not threatening fresh legal action.
Far from picking a fight with Brussels, DWP told us it had taken legal advice and believed the changes to the HRT fall within existing EU rules.
The directive Britain is already signed up to already states that jobseekers should be able to “provide evidence that they are continuing to seek employment and that they have a genuine chance of being engaged” if they want to stay in a host country, without specifying exactly how the evidence is provided.
The complication is that the European Commission is taking legal action over another aspect of the test over a completely separate issue.
European lawyers say the government’s ‘right to reside’ test for claimants is an extra hurdle over and above what was agreed collectively by EU member states.
UK citizens pass the test automatically whereas other EU citizens don’t, which the European Commission says is unfair discrimination. A court case may be needed to settle the question.
The Commission says the case is all about the people from different countries getting equal rights, not weakening the UK’s powers to prevent benefit tourism.
A spokesman pointed out to us that under EU law there are already restrictions on the free movement of citizens.
There is no legal right for unemployed EU migrants to remain indefinitely in Britain all, let alone claim benefits, if they can’t show that they can support themselves or have a realistic possibility of getting a job.
Is benefit tourism a big problem?
We’ve looked at this in some detail before and found that study after study, including research done by the government, shows that immigrants are less likely to claim benefits than native-born Brits.
In February 2013, DWP figures show that 16.4 per cent of working-age UK nationals were claiming a working-age benefit compared to 6.7 per cent of non-UK nationals.
Full a full discussion of the evidence see here.
By Patrick Worrall