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Benefit Tourism

Volume 550: debated on Monday 10 September 2012

The European Commission wants to end the habitual residence test. As a result, we would have to pay benefits to EU migrants as and when they arrive and they would not have to prove that they have been here, are working and have a residence. I believe that that is fundamentally wrong, as do the Government. The habitual residence test is vital to protect our benefits system and to stop such benefit tourism. I also do not believe that the EU has any rights in that area, and we are working with other countries that feel much the same.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that any measures that encourage benefit tourism place an intolerable burden on counties, such as ours, that provide generous welfare provision and that we need an agreement across Europe to protect countries from that threat?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. I referred to working with other countries, and a large number of other member states also have real concerns about the move and believe that they, too, will be affected. Among them are 17 member states, including Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, that attended a conference we held and they all expressed their concern. We are working with them on a set of agreed principles that we will present to the EU, which I hope will end this nonsense.

I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State will be robust in his dealings with the EU. What message does it send to hard-working taxpayers in Sherwood who, when they need the safety net of the state, find that it is being abused by those who simply step off a boat and who have not contributed to the system in the UK?

My hon. Friend is of course right that we want to support people who, through no fault of their own, fall out of work, and we want to do that for our own citizens. We also accept that for those who have been here for a period of time—hence the habitual residence test—because it is important to support those who are genuinely resident in the UK and delivering something for the UK economy. His constituents will understand fully that it is right to do that. However, it is not right for us to end up with a system—other countries agree on this—in which someone can literally arrive here and, only days after, decide that they are not working and, therefore, they are eligible for benefits. That would be quite wrong for the British taxpayer.

My constituents will be horrified with this proposal from the EU Commission but heartened by the robust stance my right hon. Friend is taking. Does he not agree that, in addition to a consensus across Europe on the issue, we need a firm and robust consensus across this House? Therefore, what representations has he received from the Labour party in this regard?

I actually have not received any representations from the Labour party but, to be fair, I did not ask for any. I always look forward to seeing my opposite number over a drink, although we have not had one recently, and he is more than welcome to make representations. He should know that we have had good representations from other countries that were not part of this, including Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia. I want to put it on the record that the costs of the proposal could be enormous. If we did not have the British residency test, it is estimated that right now the cost would be something in the order of £155 million, although that could change.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement on the habitual residence test. Does he agree that the test is vital in preventing abuse of our welfare state? Perhaps most of all, however, surely we should be deciding on such issues, not the European Union.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. We already have an issue that should be dealt with beyond that, with people who declare themselves as self-employed on arrival here—some coming in as sellers on the street, and so on. There is a way in which they can claim benefits. We do not want to open that up to everybody; we would rather deal with that but not lose the habitual residence test, which is my plan.

Will the Secretary of State none the less acknowledge that, in fact, migrant workers are more likely to be in work and disproportionately less likely to be claiming benefits than non-migrants? Does he not think it important that we conduct the debate with the facts accurately and reliably portrayed?

I agree that we want to ensure that the door is open to those who want to come and work here and benefit the UK. That is part of the agreements in the European Union. However, we have concerns, and we are not alone: 17 countries and others are beginning to ask why this is necessary. Freedom of movement exists; what the habitual residence test does is protect our understanding of that, not damage it. Indeed, we have no intention of damaging it, but we certainly want to protect British taxpayers from any kind of change.