David Cameron’s plans to make it harder to stop new arrivals from the EU getting out-of-work benefits for three months in a bid crack down on immigration have been criticised by a top EU official.
The prime minister set out plans to tweak welfare rules as he admitted he shared concerns on Tory benches about the end of transitional restrictions for the latest member states next year.
He also demanded wider EU reforms for the future – suggesting labour movement from countries joining the EU could be limited until they hit a certain level of GDP per head.
But his words got short shrift from Viviane Reding, vice-president of the EU Commission, who told Reuters:
“Free movement is non-negotiable.”
Romanians are used as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in Britain today Ion Jinga, Romanian ambassador
Ms Reding added: “If Britain wants to leave the single market, you should say so. But if Britain wants to stay a part of the single market, free movement applies. You cannot have your cake and eat it Mr Cameron!”
The prime minister’s intervention also drew the ire of the Romanian ambassador Ion Jinga, who told Channel 4 News:
“I can’t be happy when Romanians are used as scapegoats by some part of the British media and politicians are in a permanent electoral campaign and someone has to be a victim – we are not prepared to be a victim. We are people who work here and it would be a pity to creat a prejudice.”
The Prime Minister’s intervention, in an article for the Financial Times, comes amid calls from dozens of Conservative MPs for the government to ignore European law and extend controls on Romania and Bulgaria until 2018.
Mr Cameron said Labour’s failure to keep tougher limits on countries such as Poland in 2004 had been a “monumental mistake”, and he “shared concerns” about what would happen after 1 January.
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“We are changing the rules so that no one can come to this country and expect to get out of work benefits immediately; we will not pay them for the first three months,” he said.
“If after three months an EU national needs benefits – we will no longer pay these indefinitely. They will only be able to claim for a maximum of six months unless they can prove they have a genuine prospect of employment.
“We are also toughening up the test which migrants who want to claim benefits must undergo.
“This will include a new minimum earnings threshold. If they don’t pass the test, we’ll cut off access to benefits such as income support. Newly arrived EU jobseekers will not be able to claim housing benefit.”
Downing Street aides said currently some immigrants could access Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) within a month of arrival in the UK.
Mr Cameron said migrants found begging or sleeping rough could be deported.
“They will then be barred from re-entry for 12 months, unless they can prove they have a proper reason to be here, such as a job,” he added.
Firms that pay less than the minimum wage will face fines of up to £20,000 in a bid to prevent undercutting of British workers.
Spelling out his approach if the Tories win the 2015 election, Mr Cameron went on: “We need to face the fact that free movement has become a trigger for vast population movements caused by huge disparities in income.
“That is extracting talent out of countries that need to retain their best people and placing pressure on communities.
“It is time for a new settlement which recognises that free movement is a central principle of the EU, but it cannot be a completely unqualified one.
“We are not the only country to see free movement as a qualified right: interior ministers from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have also said this to the commission.
“So Britain, as part of our plan to reform the EU, will now work with others to return the concept of free movement to a more sensible basis.
“And we need to do the same with welfare. For example, free movement shouldn’t be about exporting child benefit – I want to work with our European partners to address this.”
The premier said one option would be to “require a new country to reach a certain share of average EU GDP per head before full free movement was allowed”.
He added: “Individual member states could be freed to impose a cap if their inflow from the EU reached a certain number in a single year.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insisted his Liberal Democrats were fully signed up to the rule changes – although senior sources stressed that the post-2015 ideas had not been agreed.
“These are sensible and reasonable reforms to ensure that the right to work does not automatically mean the right to claim,” Mr Clegg said.
“Other countries in the EU already have similar policies and are considering the case for going further – unfettered access to benefits across the member states simply does not exist.
“Anyone who believes we are better off as an outward facing nation should support these changes. If we don’t get to grips with these issues, pro-Europeans surrender the debate to the UKIPs of this world.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The prime minister is playing catch up. Why has it taken him eight months to copy Labour’s proposal to make the Habitual Residence Test stronger and clearer?
“After Labour proposed this change in March, the government said it was all fine and nothing needed to change. Yet now, rather than following a coherent plan, they are flailing around.
“No wonder public confidence in the government’s handling of this issue has collapsed.
“This change was only one of Labour’s proposals. The government should also be beefing up enforcement of dodgy gangmasters and targeting sectors that are reliant on migrant labour to ensure they are working to train employees.”
Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, said Mr Cameron’s proposals would do nothing to prevent an influx of new migrants from Bulgaria and Romania.
“Under his proposal somebody can come here on 1 January from Romania and within 12 weeks be entitled to unemployment benefit.
“I think that’s outrageous,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“I wouldn’t call that tough. I would say that we are still being far too generous even if he does have the guts to put this in place.
“This does nothing to stop an unrestricted flow of a very large number of unskilled people coming into Britain at a time when we have a million young unemployed people.”