issue of immigration, and its impact on the UK’s poorly-guarded social security system, is no new controversy. Ten years ago, former Tory chairman Norman Tebbit said of the abuse of Britain’s hospitals by health tourists that “the NHS is not the World Health Service, and should not be treated as though it were.” Some of the same could be said of Britain’s current altercation with the European Commission over benefits for migrants.
The UK government is flailing as it tries to drag itself from another legal sump watered by Brussels. Astonishingly, rather than accept Whitehall at face value, the European Commission has revealed its intent to take the UK to court.
Once again, the controversy lies in national differences of approach, and the EU’s attempts to bind member states in strict conformity without uniformity. The UK traditionally differentiates between rates of benefits, but grants many according to need. Our continental counterparts more closely link support to what is paid in.
Naturally, there is concern as to how many claimants from Bulgaria and especially Romania will clock this when they have increased access to the UK – either to exploit benefits cynically or to become too heavily dependent on them as a stop gap. The quite understandable worry is that the UK will essentially import more unemployed, able to access benefits they can’t get at home, at a level they wouldn’t be paid at for full-time work in their country of origin.
But what may be less appreciated is how workers from these two “A2” countries (as opposed to the “A8” Eastern European states currently allowed full access to Britain) are already part of the labour market without any real problem. A Health Protection Agency study from 2008 already showed 30,000 national insurance numbers issued annually to A2 nationals. A full 26 per cent of Bulgarians were in the UK to work in the financial sector; a third of Romanians were either in banking or engineering. The overall picture was largely of immigrants bringing sought-after skills and qualifications – including the 9 per cent of Romanians who peculiarly were listed as part of a circus.
So it would be wrong to take away from this controversy that these countries are exporting dole-seekers and surplus unskilled. But the government is right to dull the magnetism of social security, and manage the expectations driving migration. Rationally, it makes sense to stop benefits tourism in the same way as ministers try to stop health tourism. Aside from being morally wrong, both are guaranteed to generate justifiable anger among ordinary taxpayers.
But the UK response, as the Commission’s approach demonstrates, is again teetering. Thanks to the rights culture arising from the European Court of Human Rights, and now the supremacy of free movement in EU law over common sense, ministers are demonstrating again the limits of their power within the European construct. For icing, now watch for another underhand push for ID cards as the common solution.
Dr Lee Rotherham is research fellow at the TaxPayers’ Alliance and author of The EU in a Nutshell