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The latest rumours of A8 'benefit tourism' from May are unfounded and misleading

Newspaper coverage yesterday about the lifting of restrictions on access to some welfare benefits for Central and East Europeans from this May ranged from the bad to the ugly. But amid unfounded speculations about potential ‘abuse’ and ‘benefit tourism’, there is a real and pressing issue here – are local authorities prepared enough to handle the change in regulations effectively?
Download the latest briefing paper Frequently Asked Questions about the rights A8 nationals from 1 May 2011 prepared by the AIRE Centre and MRN.
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Photo: 4nitsirk (Flickr)

Since joining the EU in 2004, nationals of eight Central and Eastern European countries (or ‘A8 nationals’) have had restricted access to the UK benefits system and labour market. A8 nationals have been required to register under the government’s Worker Registration Scheme before accessing income-related benefits such as income-based jobseekers allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit. 

But from May this year, as laid out within the 2004 Accession Agreement, nationals from Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia will no longer be made to register with the WRS before being able to access income-related benefits. A full outline of the legal position for A8 nationals following May this year can be accessed here.

Essentially what this means is that, finally, Central and Eastern Europeans will be granted the same rights as other EU nationals to work and access support in the UK. Like other EU nationals, A8 nationals will still need to pass the Habitual Residence Test to show that they have the right to reside in the UK, and have an attachment here before they can qualify for social support.

But they will not be required to undergo a twelve-month period of insecurity, where they are reliant upon meeting the requirements of the WRS in the UK before they can receive support. Those working with unemployed and homeless migrants from A8 countries in the UK will welcome the change – currently, if things go wrong within their first twelve months here, there is little safety net available for A8 nationals. This has been controversial, with even the European Commission making clear in the past that it views at least some parts of the restrictions on A8 national access to benefits in the UK as unlawful.

Now the restrictions on A8 nationals are being lifted, the big question relates to what will happen after May – and as ever sections of the press have been quick to circulate predictions about the potential ‘benefits tourism’ and ‘abuse’ of the welfare system sure to come. But these speculations are baseless and misleading. The available evidence indicates that it is extremely unlikely that there will be anything approaching a surge in applications for benefits among new A8 arrivals after May – let alone a rise in false applications for benefits (the whole point is that A8 nationals will have more legal rights to access the benefits system). The demographic of A8 nationals who have come to the UK since 2004 indicates they are overwhelmingly a young and well-educated group of people. Their employment rate, at 85% in 2007, is significantly higher than the British average (76% in 2007).

A8 nationals have been characterised by a willingness to work hard in difficult and menial occupations – often far below their skill level and for low pay. Data shows that only a small proportion of A8 nationals have claimed the benefits to which they are entitled – for example, data on A8 national claims for child benefits and tax credits within their first twelve months in the UK shows that claim levels are lower than the UK average. Anecdotal accounts from welfare agencies in fact indicate that the biggest problem is that A8 migrants are not taking up support to which they are currently entitled, when they need it.

The further uncertainty about post-May migration flows from Eastern Europe also undermines the picture painted in some corners of the press. In May Germany and Austria will open their labour markets to A8 nationals – and Germany is expecting at least 100,000 new arrivals from this point. We may find that the most pressing complaint in the UK after May is that the current pool of highly capable workers from Central and Eastern Europe diminishes, as people decide that better opportunities are available elsewhere in the EU.

In the meantime, we need to ensure that those who are dispensing advice regarding benefits entitlements are adequately prepared for the change in regulations from this spring. There is little sign that the government is taking significant steps to provide frontline advisors, local authorities and benefits agencies with the information they will need to handle this change effectively. In a notoriously complex area of rules and regulations there is a real danger that the new rights and entitlements of A8 nationals will cause confusion at local level – perhaps preventing those who are entitled to access certain benefits from doing so.

In addition, we are sorely in need of responsible reporting on these issues in order to promote balanced and proportionate understanding, rather than misplaced paranoia, among the general public.

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Comments

Great article Ruth!

Also, it is well worth pointing out that the 100.000 number reported by The Times is the number of people who will have the right to claim benefits. It is something completely different to say that all of these people will actually claim the maximum possible amount (£250) and that this will cost the taxpayer millions of pounds.

Great article! We give advice to A8 and A2 migrants in Glasgow, and the authorities dont know the law as it stands, never mind the changes! The media never focus on the thousands of migrants who are currently not receiving the benefits they are entitled to- its a disgrace.

It's about time ( and I can see it coming pretty soon ) that this utter madness is halted forever. We leave the marxist Eiuropean Union, recapture our RIGHTFUL independence, and people like Ruth Grove - White get themselves a proper job.

Nu Labour , Nu Tory ...

@patriot games
I think you are on the wrong forum mate. UKIP is spelled differently than Migrants Rights.

The housing rights of A8 and other migrants are set out in detail on our housing rights website www.housing-rights.info This already points to the change that will take place on 1st May and will have more guidance as the time approaches. the site currently covers England only, but by the end of March will cover the legal position in Wales and Scotland as well.

John Perry
Chartered Institute of Housing

Thanks for all these comments. John, could you post up the link to the specific page which deals with the post-1st May position regarding A8 nationals and housing? I think that would be very helpful as there is clearly some confusion on this issue.

The same concerns were raised in Denmark, when the restricted access to work for A8 nationals were lifted in May 2009. However, we do have have such a thing as the Habitual Residence regulation. Instead, all EU nationals must have been employed in Denmark and recognised as a european worker, to get access to anything, even to stay in a publicly funded homeless shelter. Praksis here is, that it is not relevant if they are job seekers from the EU. As long as they have not been formally employed (first time job seekers) they do not have rights or access to anything, except emergency health care and in a few cases, finansial support for a ticket back to their home country.
Is the Habitual Residence test a result of EU-legislation?
Maj (working with homeless Eastern Europeans in Copenhagen).

Ruth
In response to your query, here is a summary of how we see the picture.

The issues about the entitlements to housing assistance of A8 nationals from 1st May are these:
• there is no reason why there should be an upsurge in housing demand or homelessness among A8 nationals when the WRS ends
• many of them will have been in the UK long enough, or have been on the WRS, so would have qualified for assistance before 1st May, anyway
• now the only difference is that the WRS ends so they can work without registering, and so have the same entitlements (which are conditional), as any EU (or more correctly European Economic Area) worker. The most important condition is that you must have had a job at some stage, even if you are now unemployed.
• A8 workers lost their entitlement to housing or homelessness help if they lost their job, until they had been in work on the WRS for over 12 months. Clearly this restriction no longer applies.
• Even if someone is accepted as homeless, they will not get a letting from the council unless they are in priority need (eg pregnant, with a family, etc). Many A8 workers are single people or couples so won't get housing even if they get advice/assistance (eg help to get a house in the private rented sector) because they are homeless.

On the CIH housing rights website, the relevant A8 page is:
http://www.housing-rights.info/02_7_A8_nationals.html

When we revise it, we will be directing people more specifically to the EEA worker page:
http://www.housing-rights.info/02_4_EEA_workers.html

John Perry
Chartered Institute of Housing

Maj

Thanks for your comments about the situation in Denmark.

Here's a link to a website that explains how the HRT operates in England:

http://www.housing-rights.info/habitual-residence-test.html

It wasn't introduced as a consequence of EU law or people exercising free movement rights, but rather as a general provision in social security law designed to limit access to benefits to people who were considered not to a close connection to the UK.  This could potentially include Brtish citizens, if they have been living abroad and the facts about their current position suggest that they have not yet resumed a habitual residence in the UK.

Good luck with your work in Denmark. 

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