Q&A: Bulgarian and Romanian immigration
At the end of 2013, Bulgarians and Romanians will gain the same rights to work in the UK as other EU citizens. The UK government is considering limiting their access to benefits, healthcare and housing. Here is a guide to the issues:
Bulgarians and Romanians gained the right to visa-free travel to the UK in 2007, when their countries joined the EU. But there were temporary restrictions on the kind of jobs they could take. Employers had to apply for work permits and migrants for an "accession worker card". Low-skilled workers were restricted to existing quota schemes in the agricultural and food processing sectors. These restrictions will be dropped on 1 January, having been extended to the maximum period of seven years. Bulgarians and Romanians will also be entitled to claim the same benefits and NHS care as other EU citizens.
What is the government worried about?
Public concern over immigration is running high and ministers want to demonstrate to critics, such as the anti-EU party UKIP, that Britain is not a "soft touch" or beholden to Brussels. At the same time, they do not want to deter skilled migrants who can help the economy. David Cameron says he wants to make sure people come to the UK "for the right reasons", not just to claim benefits.
Which other countries have imposed restrictions?
Apart from Britain, eight countries have imposed restrictions of some kind on Romanians and Bulgarians, which will expire at the same time:
- The Netherlands
How many Romanians and Bulgarians do ministers think will move to the UK?
The coalition is not making any official predictions. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has said he has no confidence in figures, published on his department's own website, predicting that about 13,000 will arrive. He knows that Labour got its fingers burned when it grossly underestimated the number of migrants expected to come from Eastern Europe in 2004, when Poland and other former Soviet bloc countries joined the EU. Pressure group Migration Watch has predicted 50,000 could come to the UK every year until 2019.
Will it be the same as when Poland and other Eastern European countries joined the EU?
The government insists the situation is very different this time as eight other EU countries will lift labour market restrictions at the same time. In 2004, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden opened their doors to Eastern European workers. Many Bulgarians and Romanians have already come to work in the UK since 2007 under various schemes.
So how many Romanians and Bulgarians are living in the UK at the moment?
According to the Office for National Statistics, in July 2012 there were 94,000 people who were born in Romania and 47,000 people who were born in Bulgaria resident in the UK.
What benefits can European nationals currently claim?
People coming to the UK from the European Economic Area - the EU member states and Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway - do not have unrestricted access to UK social security benefits and tax credits. Most will have to pass the habitual residence test before they can claim. To pass, you must have a "right to reside" in the UK, which means you are economically active, or are able to support yourself, and you must be intending to settle here for the time being - in other words, be "habitually resident". The test applies to British citizens returning to the UK after time abroad, as well as people coming to the UK from other countries. If you pass the test, you can claim housing benefit, council tax benefit, access to local authority housing, income support, jobseeker's allowance and employment and support allowance.
How will the government make claiming benefits harder?
The government says it is particularly concerned about the pressure created by migrants on local services, housing and the health service. To tackle this, the prime minister says he wants migrants to have to prove they are "genuinely seeking employment" to claim jobless benefits. This would be a tougher test than the current one and would include a requirement for jobseekers to speak English. Immigrants may also be kept off council house waiting lists in England for at least two years, under plans for councils to introduce a residency test. Mr Cameron says he wants the UK to get better at charging foreign governments for NHS treatment provided to non-working overseas nationals. Ministers are also examining the possibility of linking some benefits to contributions, which could exclude new arrivals from eligibility.
What does the government hope to achieve by the 1 January deadline?
EU migrants found begging or sleeping on the streets can already be deported, but from 1 January they will also be barred from re-entering the UK for a year - unless they get a job, Mr Cameron says. In addition, EU migrants are to have their benefits cut after six months unless they can confirm they are genuinely seeking work.
What else is Mr Cameron proposing?
The government says the UK will not pay "out-of-work benefits" to immigrants in the first three months of their stay, claiming that some migrants clear the habitual residence test within a month of arriving. Employers paying less than the minimum wage will face a £20,000 fine per underpaid worker. There is also a proposal to impose a minimum earnings threshold below which EU migrants would not be entitled to benefits like income support. In the longer term, Mr Cameron says he wants to impose restrictions on freedom of movement in the EU, with new member states having to reach a certain income per head before they are allowed full access to other member states' labour markets.
What do Romania and Bulgaria think?
They have reacted with anger and dismay, particularly at media portrayals of their citizens as benefit scroungers or criminals. Officials say most are hard-working and want to contribute to British society. They also insist that most Bulgarians and Romanians who want to be in the UK are already in the country and the predicted "flood" on 1 January will not happen. Most Romanians would prefer to live in Spain or Italy, where they find it easier to learn the language, embassy officials say.
Why are those two countries being singled out for welfare restrictions?
They are not. When the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians are lifted, the government wants to tighten up benefit rules for all migrants from the European Economic Area.
What does Labour say?
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper says it is right to have conditions on benefits and public services for immigration because the system "needs to be fair and seen to be fair". However, the party has questioned why the government has taken so long to act.