Government proposals to restrict tax credits for EU immigrants could also affect thousands of young Britons, it has been reported today.
Ministers have been told that preventing EU migrants from claiming benefits in the UK would be regarded as “direct discrimination” under European Union (EU) law.
Any plans to slash benefits for EU migrants would require an EU treaty change to be approved by all 28 member states.
David Cameron said in November of last year (2014): “Changes to welfare – to cut EU migration – will be an absolute requirement in the negotiation that I’m going to undertake.”
The Prime Minster has urged EU leaders to accept plans which would require EU migrants to be residents in the UK for at least four years before they can claim state benefits – including tax credits and child benefit.
The government has described the proposals as a “reasonable” measure.
Ministers are under pressure to act over the so-called “migrant crisis” in Calais, which has resulted in a marked increase in desperate migrants and asylum seekers attempting to gain entry into the UK.
However, figures suggest that Britain is accepting far fewer asylum seekers that other EU countries. The British Red Cross says the UK received 31,400 asylum applications in 2014. This was less than Germany (166,800), France (63,100), Italy (56,300) and Sweden (81,300). Only 41% of asylum applications were accepted.
In a document seen by BBC News, government lawyers have informed ministers: “Imposing additional requirements on EU workers that do not apply to a member state’s own workers constitutes direct discrimination which is prohibited under current EU law.”
It adds that such restrictions could be implemented through “secondary legislation”. However, it argues: “legal arguments to do so are extremely weak”.
The government has now rewritten the plans to comply with EU law, in a move which could see thousands of Britons prevented from claiming tax credits and housing benefit.
Anyone over the age of 18 would have to prove they have been living in the UK for at least four years before they can make a benefits claim. Those aged under 22 who have been resident in the UK throughout their lives would be ineligible.
A government spokeswoman told the BBC: “We’ve already taken action to protect the benefits system and ensure that EU migrants come to this country for the right reasons and to contribute to the economy.
“Now we’re focused on re-negotiating our relationship with Europe and getting a better deal for Britons, and we won’t speculate on other options.”
Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Stephen Timms, said:
“It certainly sounds as though these negotiations are not going well and ministers are waking up to the fact they won’t be able to deliver the renegotiation they’ve promised.
“Our view has always been that there is a good case for restricting benefits to new migrants from elsewhere in the European Union.
“Our manifesto argued for a two-year restriction. The Government has been aiming a four-year restriction.”
Mr Timms said it was “not be acceptable for ordinary UK citizens to be badly hit because the Government’s renegotiation efforts have not succeeded.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Timms added that Labour’s plan to restrict EU migrants from claiming benefits in the UK would only apply to 18 and 19-year-olds.
Chancellor George Osborne criticised the tax credits system in the summer budget. He claimed that Britain is taxing working families only for the money to be given back in tax credits.
Last updated at 08:55 on 11 August 2015, to include a comment from Labour’s Stephen Timms.