Friday, 14 August 2015
How to solve EU benefits problem: punish the young?
If you've kept your eye on recent developments in the benefits world, you'll know that two groups of people are having a hard time: European migrants to the UK; and young people. So it may or may not come as surprise that, if the BBC is correct, the government is currently considering plans that resolve its need to appear tough on migrants by punishing British young people. Its either a scheme of floundering desperation or breathtaking cynicism. Or possibly both.
Here's the article, if you want to look at it yourself: EU migrant benefit plan 'could hit thousands of young Britons'
Here's the proposal in a nutshell. The government wants to prevent people from Europe from getting any child benefit or tax credits (and, possibly, housing benefit) until they've been in the UK for at least four years. But to meet EU equality rules, these restrictions will also have to be applied to British nationals (and foreign nationals who are settled in the UK). As children cannot get benefits in their own right, the four years start ticking when British people are old enough to claim benefits in their own right. So a young person would be unable to claim these benefits until he or she reaches the age of 22.
Before I comment further, I should reassure you: this is, as far as I can tell, just a proposal: it's not going to affect anything anytime soon. And note that we're only talking about child benefit and tax credits here, not other benefits (yet). But it's still disturbing.
It's important to understand the context here.
The government wants to restrict benefits for EU migrants. The Labour government started the restrictions, by introducing a 'right to reside' test into the rules for many means-tested benefits. Since then there has been a progressive tightening of the rules, with the overall effect that, if you are an EU migrant, you are likely to find it very hard to get any help from the state unless you are actually working or in a short period of job-seeking (for more info about the introduction and development of right to reside rules, have a look at www.benefitsowl.info/abroad-eea-history.html, for information about how this pans out in practice, check out www.benefitsowl.info/abroad-eea-cit.html)
But it's hard to restrict entitlement further. One of the basic principles of the European Union is that it is a free market: there must be no restriction to the movement of goods, services, and labour between member states. This means that no country can make it harder for people from another EU state to work than its own citizens. David Cameron, and others, have made a lot of noise about renegotiating the treaty rules to change this, but it's hard to see how this can happen: logically it defeats the object of the EU, and practically many other countries object strongly to any restriction of this kind.
So, unsurprisingly, lawyers have advised the government that making EU citizens wait until they have been in the UK for four years would be unlawful: 'Imposing additional requirements on EU workers that do not apply to a member state's own workers constitutes direct discrimination which is prohibited under current EU law'.
According to the BBC, the government has responded to this by proposing making everyone wait four years before they can claim child benefit and tax credits.
The frustrating thing about all this is that this isn't really about a rational response to a real problem: the evidence is that migrants bring more money into the country than they take in benefits (see, for example, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/05/eu-migrants-uk-gains-20bn-ucl-study). Instead it's about political manoeuvring and pandering to UKIP and some elements of the press. This new proposal seems almost purpose built to divide and rule - set young British people against EU migrants. I hope, and believe, that this won't happen, and even dare to hope that it has the opposite effect.
An odd thing that is missing here, either in the government's thinking or the BBC's reporting of it, is Universal Credit (UC). By the time any change of this sort came into force UC would have presumably replaced tax credits for new claimants anyway. I presume that the child-related parts of Universal Credit would be removed for the first four years. But I cannot be sure.
If these changes were to go through, the young people who would suffer would be the ones with children. How would they cope, or be expected to cope? Who knows? And what about the children: how does this proposal square with the proclaimed intention to reduce child poverty?
A government spokeswoman approached by the BBC declined to speculate on the matters raised. But, at the risk of pushing the boat of my opinion a bit too far out, I ask this: what have young people done, for the government to be apparently willing to sacrifice their wellbeing to satisfy the imagined needs of bigots and xenophobes?