Written by Jo Foster • Published 19th December 2013
The past 12 months has been loaded with scaremongering about the (so-called epic!) numbers of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants coming to the UK from January 1st (2014). Whilst it is true the transitional controls are lifted at the end of this year predictions have been frenzied and massively overblown. The removal of immigration controls on Bulgaria and Romania is unlikely to lead to an influx comparable to that from the eastern European accession countries in 2004 for a couple of reasons. Firstly there are eight other countries also removing transitional controls at the end of the year, including Germany, some of these countries where there are already significant populations of Bulgarians and Romanians. Also, Romanians and Bulgarians have had open access to the UK, for six years already, so many of those who might come already have.
Despite this, the debate remains at fever pitch levels with the Home Office leaking of ‘illegal’ plans to cap migrants and a seemingly last-minute response from Government. It was announced this week that the government would rush through legislation in parliament to ensure that that in the New Year, as restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK are lifted new rules will limit the ability of migrants to claim benefits.
They announced that no newly arrived EU job seekers will be able to claim housing benefit. No EU migrant will be entitled to out-of-work benefits for the first three months. No EU migrant will be able to claim job seeker’s allowance for more than a maximum of six months unless they can prove that they have a genuine prospect of employment. A new minimum-earnings threshold will be introduced before benefits such as income support can be claimed. Any EU national sleeping rough or begging will be deported and barred from re-entry for 12 months “unless they can prove they have a proper reason to be here, such as a job”.
The moves sound sensible, if not a little bit late! We’re not the only country to do this, other countries have much tougher rules than us and its right to bring forward a discussion about whether the free movement of people should give rise to claiming benefits straight away too.
It’s fair to say that in recent times nobody has got the policing of immigration right, Jack Straw former Home Secretary branded applying no restrictions on eastern European migrants in 2004 a spectacular mistake. The Exit Controls promised by the coalition have not yet been delivered, something both sides agreed on.
I believe in the free moment of people, on a human level it is sad that our fellow men and women live in such poverty that coming to the UK to beg is a preferable lifestyle choice. Free movement of people, however, is not where the true debate lies. There is a grown-up debate to be had among the people who work and pay tax in the UK about the National Health Service and the welfare state. So far these have functioned as international services treating and caring for all who come. We know we can’t afford that anymore so the time to debate this is now – but we must be careful not to be swallowed up by the hysterical messages being spouted from various quarters.