More 'constructive' thinking needed on migrant welfare benefits?

More 'constructive' thinking needed on migrant welfare benefits?

As the British political debate continues on whether the British government should try to impose a four-year ban on EU migrant citizens claiming in-work benefits, a new Oxford University study argues that rather than pursuing treaty change, more 'constructive' thinking could ease the financial burden on British taxpayers. 

Study author Professor Martin Seeleib-Kaiser, from the Oxford Institute of Social Policy, says one solution could be to set up an EU fund for helping local authorities most affected by immigration. He also highlights the relatively lax access to NHS services that EU citizens enjoy in Britain compared with other EU member states.

Overall, the study says the British welfare state is not radically different from other welfare states in providing benefits and services for EU migrant citizens, as benefits and services of primary importance to EU migrant citizens of working age are largely tax-financed, even in those countries that otherwise tend to rely on social insurance contributions as preconditions for benefits or services.

The study suggests that the British government could seek financial aid from European Structural Funds, to support those local authorities whose local services were most affected by immigration. The Structural Funds, designed to reduce regional disparities in income, wealth and opportunities, could include a pot earmarked as the European Citizenship and Mobility Fund, suggests Professor Seeleib-Kaiser, with local authorities applying for these EU funds. He points out that Germany is already making use of the European Social Fund to support the integration of EU migrant citizens, for example, to pay for language classes or the housing and education requirements of EU migrants in Germany.

He challenges the idea that so-called 'tourist migrants' see Britain as a 'soft' target for accessing welfare benefits, comparing it with systems across member states. He finds that overall spending on welfare is lower in Britain than in many other countries of the Eurozone. The Oxford study highlights recent data from Gaffney (2014) on the disposable income and overall tax-benefit package and housing costs that could be claimed by EU migrant citizens across member states. It shows that on that basis alone, Britain would be less attractive to EU migrant citizens than Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria.  Professor Seeleib-Kaiser reasons that most EU migrant citizens move to Britain because of the overall availability of work and the English language. He underlines the lack of evidence to show EU migrant citizens are drawn to Britain because of its welfare system — despite the narrative in the British public debate on immigration.

On the issue of healthcare services, however, Professor Seeleib-Kaiser highlights that in contrast with Germany and Scandinavian countries, access to the NHS is easier, as there is no population register and neither is there a requirement to provide a national insurance number. He cites NHS research that shows the UK is not effectively recovering costs of treatment from EU citizens from other member states even though this is possible. By contrast, EU migrants in Germany need a statutory health insurance card or a European Health Insurance Card to access healthcare, whereas Scandinavian countries impose very strict registration requirements for those seeking to access universal healthcare.

Professor Seeleib-Kaiser said: 'The UK government seems set on a collision course with its EU partners in trying to change the EU treaty on welfare and benefits for EU migrant citizens. Yet a more constructive approach would be to explore the case for extra EU funding. This would help local authorities struggling to provide services in places affected by an increase of EU migrant citizens. EU structural funds already make up a bulk of EU spending, and provide an income stream to other member states dealing with issues relating to immigration. This financial support from the EU would help migrant citizens integrate successfully, improve local services struggling to cope, and thereby reduce the cost for the British taxpayers.

'Banning EU migrant workers from in-work benefits does not seem to be a very constructive way forward, as it would require treaty change, which would seem very unlikely. To relieve the pressures on local governments and reduce the cost for British taxpayers the UK government should negotiate with its European partners to establish an EU-funded European Citizenship and Mobility Fund.'