I will try and hide my own opinions about all this for this post. My aim, instead, is to summarise the main details of all the different changes, and where all this leaves European Economic Area (EEA) migrants in the UK today when it comes to claiming social security benefits.
For a more detailed, and possibly more accessible, description, please read my web site pages on this subject, which have been subject to considerable reworking over the last few weeks:
http://www.benefitsowl.info/abroad-eea-cit.html for general information about the rules for EEA citizens in the UK
http://www.benefitsowl.info/abroad-eea-history.html for a brief history lesson covering developments for EEA citizens in the UK up to the present.
The changes I will be looking at are:
- Removal of restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals
- Three months residence requirement for Jobseeker's Allowance claimants
- Tougher rules for Jobseeker's Allowance claimants for EEA nationals
- Minimum earning threshold for EEA migrants
- Restrictions to Housing Benefit for some Jobseeker's Allowance claimants
First, though, in case you haven't got the time to check out those links, there are two key concepts you need to be aware of:
- 'Habitual residence': in essence, if a claimant come to the UK to live, they are generally barred from claiming means-tested benefits until the state is satisfied that they are really intending to stay here, and not just visit. This applies to UK citizens who have lived abroad as well as to EEA nationals. When a person has become habitually resident is decided as a case by case basis, but it normally takes between about one and three months.
- 'Right to reside': Since 2004, the UK government will not regard a person as being habitually resident unless they have a right to reside here. This lets British citizens off the hook, but is a real problem for people from the EEA. The rules setting out who has the right to reside are extraordinarily complex: however it's safe to say that, in general, workers do have this right, as freedom of movement for workers is enshrined in the original treaty setting up the European Union.
Note: in the rest of this post, when I write Jobseeker's Allowance you should take this to mean income based Jobseeker's Allowance unless otherwise stated. There are no restrictions on claiming contribution based Jobseeker's Allowance, but in general most recent migrants are not able to get this.
Removal of restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals
When these two countries joined the European Union on 1st January 2007 the UK got a special concession, or derogation, which allowed it to impose extra restrictions on people from these countries. The key right of freedom of movement for workers was, in effect, watered down. Romanians and Bulgarians could come here to work, but only in certain types of work and only in a strictly regulated way. They also were not allowed, in effect, to claim Jobseeker's Allowance and any other benefits that result from that (like Housing Benefit), until they had worked for at least a year (they were allowed to claim appropriate benefits if they were working, such as Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and Housing Benefit).
EU law does not allow this kind of derogation to continue for more than 7 years, so the British government had no choice but to end the restrictions. They therefore now have the same rights as citizens of other EEA member states.
From 1st January, therefore, Bulgarians and Romanians can take up any employment that's available, and, if they get a job but later lose it, they will be able to claim Jobseeker's Allowance.
Had there been no other legal changes, they would also be able to claim Jobseeker's Allowance before they found their first job, but this is now not possible for EEA migrants anyway, as you will see.
Three months residence requirement for Jobseeker's Allowance claimants
From 1st January 2014 anyone claiming Jobseeker's Allowance will not be treated as habitually resident, and therefore unable to get Jobseeker's Allowance, until they have been in the UK for three months.
Although this change was presumably brought in as a reaction to the feared 'influx' of Bulgarian and Romanian jobseekers, it applies to all new entrants, including UK citizens who have been abroad for a while.
In practice, the effect of this change is likely to be marginal, as even under the previous rules it was not unusual to have to wait for three months to satisfy the habitual residence test anyway.
Tougher rules for Jobseeker's Allowance claimants for EEA nationals
This is where is gets a bit tricky; partly because the underlying legislation is extraordinarily labyrinthine, and partly because (paradoxically) some of the key terms are very poorly defined.
The government describes the changes as follows (from its press release):
'After 3 months [see above], migrants will also have to take a stronger, more robust test if they want to claim income-based JSA.
In order to pass the improved Habitual Residence Test migrants will have to answer more individually tailored questions, provide more detailed answers, and submit more evidence before they will be allowed to make a claim. For the first time, migrants will be asked about what efforts they have made to find work before coming to the UK and whether their English language skills will be a barrier to them finding employment.
If they pass the Habitual Residence Test, EEA jobseekers will then only be able to claim JSA for 6 months. After 6 months, only those who have compelling evidence that they have a genuine chance of finding work will be able to continue claiming.'
Frustratingly, none of the following aspects of this are laid out in the legislation:
- details of the 'stronger, more robust,' test;
- what 'evidence' will be required;
- what evidence will be required to meet the threshold of 'compelling'.
There are also a number of issues related to the distinction between people who are defined as jobseekers and those defined as workers who are 'involuntarily unemployed' (but are also jobseekers), and how people move between these definitions. This feeds into the new rules about Housing Benefit (see below).
Minimum earning threshold for EEA migrants
As stated in a previous post (http://benefitsowl.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/a-busy-week-for-benefit-watchers-part-2.html) I actually disagree with some other commentators in that I think this is probably a change for the better. The change may be a useful clarification, and doesn't, as the change is worded, restrict anyone's rights compared to what they were before.
The clarification has not come in the form of any new law, but as a memo added to the Decision Makers Guide (Memo DMG 1/14). It uses something called the 'minimum earnings threshold', which is, broadly speaking, the amount you need to earn before you have to pay class one National Insurance Contributions (£153 for 2014/15). The guide says that if an employee or a self-employed person has been earning at least this for the three months before a claim for benefit is made they will 'automatically' be considered a worker. If this test is not satisfied, the decision maker 'will need to examine each case as a whole, taking account of all circumstances, to determine whether the EEA national’s activity was genuine and effective'. This second bit is what the DWP was supposed to be doing with all EEA worker claimants anyway, before this memo.
So for people who have been earning above the minimum earnings threshold they can be certain that they will be treated as workers. Those who are earnings less will continue to be assessed as they were before.
Note that this guidance is unlikely to be applicable to people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support, or Employment and Support Allowance, as they won't normally fit the rules for these benefits anyway, but will be relevant to claimants of Housing Benefit and Universal Credit.
Restrictions to Housing Benefit for some Jobseeker's Allowance claimants
This change comes in later than the others, on 1st April 2014.
The main effect of the new law is that although new EEA arrivals in the UK may be able to get Jobseeker's Allowance after three months, but even then they will not normally be entitled to Housing Benefit. On the other hand, an EEA resident in the UK who has been working, and then loses their job, will be able to get Housing Benefit with their new claim for Jobseeker's Allowance.
That might seem reasonable enough (or perhaps not). But there is another problem, related to my final comments in the section on 'tougher rules...' above.
The way in which the law preferentially targets newer arrivals is by removing access to Housing Benefit from 'plain' jobseekers, as opposed to workers who have become unemployed.
This needs some explanation. The treaty of Rome, which created the then European Community, gave freedom of movement to workers. It also included the freedom to move between European countries to seek work. However subsequent European directives have made it clear that these two freedoms are not equal. The effect is that EU countries, such as the UK, have more obligations to workers than to work seekers.
Furthermore, the EU requires that workers do not lose their 'worker' status for at least six months if they lose a job, provided that they register as a jobseeker.
The upshot of all this is that people who claim Jobseeker's Allowance and want Housing Benefit will be able to get it if they are regarded as worker, and won't if they aren't.
But here's the thing. Ex-working jobseekers will not be able to have the 'worker' status indefinitely. In accordance with EU law anyone who was employed for less than a year does not have to be treated as worker after they have been off work for six months. They will then become an 'ordinary' jobseeker, and therefore lose the right to Housing Benefit.
And even people who have worked for more than a year in the UK risk losing their right to Housing Benefit after six months unless they can 'provide compelling evidence that [they are] continuing to seek employment and [have] a genuine chance of being engaged'.
So we could be seeing people who have been in the UK a while, have taken up tenancies, and will lose their ability to get Housing Benefit if they are unemployed for too long.
I note that the legislation creating this restriction was neither referred to Parliament's Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), nor were the proposals sent out to consultation, as 'it appears to [the Secretary of State] that by reason of the urgency of the matter it is inexpedient to do so'. This is disturbing.
You might wonder why most of these changes seem to be targeted as jobseekers (and workers) and nobody else. The reason is simple. Most EEA migrants to the UK who are not in the labour market are not entitled to any income-based benefits already.
People in the labour market will need to get used to a regime where no benefits are available until they get work, and where they will not be able to rely on retaining benefits for more than six months of unemployment.
Having said that, some of the changes (the initial three month prohibition on claiming Jobseeker's Allowance, for example) are not as significant as they appear: it is hard to escape the feeling that they were introduced to give an impression of action.
Nevertheless the changes do matter, and people will undoubtedly experience hardship and anxiety because of them.
 The Immigration (EEA)(Amendment)(No.2) Regulations 2013
 The Jobseeker's Allowance (Habitual Residence) Amendment Regulations 2013
 The Housing Benefit (Habitual Residence) Amendment Regulations 2014