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