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Access to Benefits

Volume 571: debated on Monday 2 December 2013

My hon. Friend will have noted the steps set out last week by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to tighten up the benefits system and ensure that those coming to Britain do so to work and contribute, rather than to take out of the country.

A thought-provoking article on migration published last week by Civitas shows that the British sense of fairness dictates that there should be some link between what people put into the welfare state and what they get out of it. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the case of new immigrants there is very little link at all, and does that not need to be looked at?

My hon. Friend is spot on. A number of the changes we set out last week do exactly that. For example, we are limiting the period over which a jobseeker can keep claiming benefits to six months. Colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have strengthened the habitual residence test to ensure that it is tougher. We have also made sure that if people who come here are not exercising treaty rights and we remove them from the United Kingdom, we can stop them returning unless they demonstrate that they are going to do so.

Much of the detail on access to benefits is determined locally, and it is quite difficult, even after checking with the House of Commons Library or the website, to understand what some of the precise definitions mean. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that local authorities and the various agencies interpret what he thinks is a toughening consistently across the country?

On the hon. Lady’s point about benefits, those are not decisions for local authorities but for the Department for Work and Pensions, which trains its staff very carefully and gives them clear guidance. They are rolling out the new habitual residence test, which is robust and has a clear script with questions that people are asked. There will be further changes on access to housing benefit. We will make sure that where these decisions are for local authorities they are provided with clear guidance so that they can make the right decisions in the tougher regime.

On 1 January, when the transitional controls on Romania and Bulgaria are lifted, will entry also be permitted to non-EU citizens who have Bulgarian or Romanian passports? If so, will the very large number of Moldovans who have Romanian passports be entitled to benefits, like Romanians and Bulgarians?

I may be missing something, but if people have Romanian or Bulgarian passports and are citizens of Romania or Bulgaria, they are entitled to come to Britain because those countries are members of the European Union. Indeed, they could come to Britain today; the transitional restrictions are only about whether they can come here to work. People with a Romanian or Bulgarian passports—citizens of those countries—are of course able to come to Britain today.

My constituents are pretty accepting of migration and have been for very many years, and I have always been liberal about migration to our country, but what does worry them is not just the benefit position but whether we have enough school places and social housing. Do we have enough public services to meet the challenge of a fresh wave of immigration?

It is very good, of course, that the hon. Gentleman takes a very liberal approach; he will have been delighted, then, when his party was in power and had net migration of 2.1 million over its period in office, but I do not think that was the general view. On the availability of public services, it is exactly because of the pressures on school places and on access to GPs that the Government have reduced net migration by nearly a third since the election. We want to make sure that people who are coming here are doing so to contribute and to pay their way, and that immigration is properly controlled.