As our borders are about to be opened to migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, the government is looking for ways to limit the associated costs. Matt Harding reports.
As reported in gair rhydd a number of weeks ago, the current establishment is focused on destroying the image of Britain as a haven for Eastern European economic migrants. This has meant moderate amounts of ‘self harming’, for example the admission of unemployment problems and how terrible the weather is. However the new tactic proposed by the government is in a slightly different ball-park to the Home Office’s negative advertisements.
A large adjustment has been discussed regarding the functioning of the housing allocation and benefits system in order to prioritise British benefit seekers over recently arrived migrants.
With the issue of EU immigration once again dominating British politics, government concerns regarding the future free movement of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants are at the centre of current debate across the country. The particular aspect of this topic which the current politicians seem so keen to discuss, is how best to continue the ‘curb’ of Eastern European migrants who, in the House of Commons have been labelled in recent weeks by many Tory MPs as nothing more than ‘benefit tourists’.
In 2007, temporary legislation was put in place to restrict the number of immigrants from the newly added nations of the EU. In December 2013, these temporary controls expire, providing people in Bulgaria and Romania unrestricted rights to move and live in the UK, should they choose to do so. This impending date has left many, both politicians and public, calling for government action once again, to restrict numbers of immigrants from these nations, with some think tanks putting the number of potential immigrants at 50,000 a year until 2017.
The fact is, it is a central principle of the European Union that all European citizens are entitled to move freely within the single market. It is somewhat disingenuous for the UK government to demand total freedom of movement for goods, capital and services, yet reject that of labour. We signed up to the whole package, and the European Commission will not hesitate to remind David Cameron of that.
The proposal is to alter the housing allocation benefits program into a ‘previous contribution’ system, giving priority to those who have been in residence in the area for a set period of time before. The proposals have already been put in place by other EU states and have been deemed to be legal by the Court of Justice for the EU, ensuring that, should the proposal be made legislation, it will not be challenged by the wider European community.
However, as this would take place at a local council level, using the now greater powers of the local council, it is likely to also lead to the exclusion of Britons from other areas of the country, with the requirements for housing being any form of link to the area, such as relatives or education. Those without such links, would be placed at the bottom of the housing list, and be placed in the same position as the incoming Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants.
The proposal to prioritise the previous residents of a particular area doesn’t just stop with housing. There have been other calls put forward for a restriction on the ability of immigrants to use the NHS for non-urgent treatment. The current suggestion is that migrants will be asked to prove they have been in the country for a year, before being entitled to a check-up or standard doctor’s appointment and non-urgent hospital treatment.
The three major political parties have been quick to respond to the proposals, with William Hague largely playing the role of a experienced veteran in these circumstances, carefully tip-toeing around the fact that no one actually knows the exact numbers of migrants who will arrive in the shores of Dover next year. Nevertheless, he was sure enough to point out that he wished to remove “artificial perverse incentives” to dramatically tackle the predicted numbers.
Nick Clegg was found in a similar position, claiming a lack of facts, whilst attributing the early numbers as “guesstimates”, whilst other sources have claimed that Labour’s predictions are “wildly wrong.” Despite this, a senior member of the Labour Party, Frank Field, claimed that the minister’s ideas were “ineffective” in curbing the issue, with other members, such as Labour frontbencher Stephen Timms arguing that tightening the rules on benefits would make their implementation far more “chaotic”.
In a recent development, Britain is set to meet with Germany and other members of the European Union to discuss the issues of ‘benefit tourists’ and how best to curb the flow of migrants from the east, seeking these welfare incentives. With Germany at the heart of the European Union, and largely the main spokesperson for maintaining it as a single community, these moves must be interpreted as establishing social and economic barriers in a trade bloc or unrestricted economic community.
These disincentives then, inspire levels of nationalism and self-interest, qualities which is not compatible with the wider European community. There is also a wider question of whether this will actually work; there are already 150,000 Bulgarian and Romanian born people living in Britain legally at the moment, and this number is likely to rise regardless of disincentives offered by the government, as the main pull for many migrants, is the relatively strong UK economy and UK wages, not the benefits which many of the migrants are deemed to be searching.