Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An open door to welfare tourists

EU warns Britain it can't stop thousands more migrants claiming welfare handouts

Benefits tourists are set to get the green light to come to Britain and immediately claim handouts totalling £2.5billion a year. According to documents leaked to the Mail, ministers have been warned that restrictions on claims by immigrants are against the law and must be scrapped.

The European Commission's ruling threatens to open the door to tens of thousands who are currently deterred from coming to Britain. At the moment, a 'habitual residency test' is used to establish whether migrants from the EU are eligible for benefits.

To qualify for jobseeker's allowance, employment support allowance, pension credit and income support, they must demonstrate that they either have worked or have a good opportunity to get a job.

But after receiving a complaint that the rules infringed the human rights of EU citizens, the Commission began to examine them. In a letter seen by the Mail, it warns that the restrictions are 'not compatible' with EU law. It says: 'EU law leaves it to member states to determine the details of their social security schemes and social assistance schemes, including the conditions on awarding benefits.

‘However, when making use of this competence, member states have to comply with the fundamental principles of EU law, such as the right to equal treatment on the basis of nationality. Having examined the “right to reside” test... it is not compatible with different legal provisions of EU law.’

The letter, written to the individual who made the complaint and copied to the British government, is dated last December, but Whitehall sources claim ministers in the outgoing Labour government failed to argue against the proposals.

Britain had toughened up its rules in 2004 when the EU was expanding its borders. The restrictions assess the eligibility of those from the EU and from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

But the Commission has begun legal proceedings against Britain to get restrictions on welfare claims by incomers scrapped.

If successful, the Government would be required to remove its deterrents to benefit tourism, including the right-to-reside test and an additional qualification for those claiming jobseeker’s allowance, that they must have worked for 12 months or more. Officials warn the bill could be between £1.3billion and £2.5billion a year – hampering plans to rein in welfare spending.

However, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is understood to be determined to fight the move through the courts if necessary.

The Whitehall source warned: ‘This has the potential to open the doors of the benefits system to anyone coming here from the entire European economic area, who may have no intention of working or even looking for work but simply wants to claim benefits. 'We already have enough of a problem managing people who want to come here. But this would open up a whole new wave of benefit tourism.’

Last year, 46,957 non-UK nationals took the habitual residence test. Of those, 24,604 passed and 22,353 failed. For the test, they are interviewed and asked about why they have come to the UK, how long they intend to stay and their employment arrangements.

‘Fundamentally this is designed to ensure people aren’t coming to the UK to be benefit tourists,’ added the source.

The Department for Work and Pensions said: ‘We are in discussions with the Commission as, in our view, the current rules are within the law and are right for the UK, and changing them now would not be in our interest.

Our rules fully support the freedom of workers within the EU, whilst making sure that there are reasonable restrictions on access to social security for those who have never worked in the UK. ‘This prevents unsustainable burdens being placed on our social security system. We will argue our case and work towards a favourable outcome.’

The case is specifically between Britain and the Commission, but other countries which impose restrictions on access to welfare for migrants – Denmark, France and Ireland – are likely to be affected too.

Britain’s test was introduced in 1993, but tightened in 2004 after concerns that residents of new member would move to the previous 15 member states to benefit from their generous social welfare systems. Former Labour minister Margaret Hodge has argued restrictions should be toughened further to address voters’ concerns.


French MPs debate controversial immigration law

French lawmakers debated a controversial immigration bill Tuesday which would expand the state's power to strip foreign-born citizens of their nationality if they commit major crimes.

The government says the bill is aimed at bringing French law into line with European Union immigration directives, but rights groups accuse President Nicolas Sarkozy of pursuing a populist anti-immigrant agenda.

The law was put to cabinet by Immigration Minister Eric Besson in March and subsequently toughened by Sarkozy and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux amid a security clampdown and accelerated mass expulsions of the Roma minority.

The bill extends the state's right to strip those who have immigrated within the last 10 years of their nationality if they kill or attempt to kill a person in authority, such as a police officer, a fireman or a judge.

Under current French law immigrants can be stripped of their nationality if they commit a crime against "the fundamental interests of France" or an act of terrorism. The fifth immigration law in France in seven years, the bill makes it easier to expel foreigners, including EU citizens who "threaten public order" through repeated theft, aggressive begging or "abusive occupation of land".

Rights groups say that equating begging or setting up caravans with public order issues plays on fears and prejudices -- and unfairly targets Roma.

EU laws on freedom of movement currently only allow removal of EU citizens who represent a "genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society."

Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are at an all-time low, is seeking to consolidate his conservative base ahead of presidential elections in 2012.

The bill allows for the creation of ad hoc detention zones for fast-tracking asylum claims as if the would-be immigrant were not actually in France, making it easier to expel them to a country of origin or of transit. Many of the bill's measures are seen as targeting Roma, who as EU citizens usually from Romania or Bulgaria have the right to stay anywhere in the EU for at least three months.

International bodies including the United Nations and the European Commission have criticised France's Roma expulsions, with the Commission due to rule on their legality amid uproar from rights groups.

Parliament "should reject measures in an omnibus immigration bill that appear to target Roma and weaken migrants' rights," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

"It is shocking that the French government is pushing for measures that clearly target Roma at a time when the European Commission is threatening legal action over France's expulsion of Roma," said HRW's Judith Sunderland. "It smacks of a populist move at the expense of the most discriminated against and vulnerable people in Europe today."

The bill accelerates entry procedures for highly qualified immigrants and requires those seeking French nationality to sign a charter of citizens rights and duties. Immigration Minister Besson said that he would be "very happy" if his ministry "could be a machine for making 'good French people.'"

"Last year we gave French nationality to 108,000 foreigners," Le Parisien newspaper quoted him as saying. "Being a 'good French person' doesn't mean denying your history, your roots or your French culture," he said.

The spokesman for opposition Socialist MPs, Bruno Le Roux, said that with every new immigration law "another step is taken in the deterioration of republican principles." "The more voters flee, the more radical the laws become, the more discussions are centred on immigration and security matters," he said shortly before the start of the debate.

MP Etienne Pinte from Sarkozy's own UMP party said he would vote against the law which "seeks to pull in the National Front's electorate." He said he would seek up to 40 amendments to the bill in order to "humanise" it.

Rights groups have called for a demonstration outside the National Assembly on Tuesday evening.


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