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Access to Benefits

Volume 591: debated on Monday 26 January 2015

10. Whether universal credit will be available to migrants from the European Economic Area when it is fully rolled out. (907182)

Citizens of the European economic area who choose to come here without a job to start will not be able to access universal credit. We have introduced several restrictions to benefits to ensure that our welfare system focuses support on those who are contributing to the economy. These include strengthening the habitual residency test, banning access to housing benefit for new EEA jobseekers, and introducing a three-month residency requirement for income-based jobseeker’s allowance.

The Secretary of State originally predicted that 1 million people would be on universal credit by April last year. The latest figure is 26,000. I understand that last October he predicted a figure of 100,000 by May—does he still believe that?

The universal credit programme is working well. It is now completing its roll-out to all the areas in the north-west, to all singles, couples and families. In the next month, it will start rolling out across the country, and that will bring universal credit to more jobcentres. By the time that process is completed, one in three jobcentres will be running universal credit. The key thing is to make sure that we get this vital reform, which helps people to get back into work faster, that we land it correctly and safely, and that we learn the lessons of the past when things like tax credits, brought in under the previous Government, were absolute disasters wasting billions of pounds in lost money and fraud.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite wrong for people who are working in this country on a temporary basis to be able to claim benefits for their dependants in their country of origin, when one considers the cost of those benefits in relation to the differences in the cost of living?

Yes; changing that situation is something that the coalition has set out to achieve. I remind my hon. Friend that when we came to power, the last Government had pretty much left an open door for access to benefits. People were able to claim jobseeker’s allowance pretty much on arrival. There was a habitual residence test, but it was very weak. We strengthened it and stopped people claiming for more than three months. People will not be able to claim housing benefit and they must have a right of residence. If they do claim, they must show that they have a minimum earnings likelihood. Anything below that will not count as a job. We are tightening up the system after the mess that we were left by the last Government.

Does the Secretary of State really feel that it is sufficient for people to have to work in this country for only three months before they can claim out-of-work benefits?

I will take that as a peculiar compliment. We inherited a system in which people did not have to work for any time to claim jobseeker’s allowance. Within the existing rules, we will not pay for the first three months. If people are unemployed, they will be paid for three months. After that, they will be asked to leave. That is a much tighter position than the one we inherited. I, of course, would like to take it further. As the Prime Minister set out clearly in a recent speech, he believes that there should be years of contributions before someone is eligible to claim benefits, be they tax credits or jobseeker’s allowance. When the Conservative party gets back into power, we will implement that.

I, too, welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement in November that a future Conservative Government will have the toughest regime in Europe on limiting migrants’ access to our benefits system. Will the Secretary of State outline for the House the steps the Government have already taken to ensure that migrants come here to work and contribute, and what he has done to deter people from benefit tourism?

Exactly what I have mentioned. The mess that we were left by the last Government left little or no restrictions on anybody coming in, so the UK became a draw for people who wanted to claim benefits and be out of work, because it was a better option. We are tightening that up. We have stopped a number of things, such as housing benefit, and have shortened the time on jobseeker’s allowance. Tax credits are moving into line with that as well. As I said, when we are re-elected at the next election as a Conservative Government, we will tighten it up even more.