EU benefits ban: legal advice taken

Ministers have taken legal advice to ensure measures to stop EU migrants claiming out-of-work benefits for their first three months in the UK cannot be overturned by the courts, David Cameron has revealed, after the European Commission said it was "too early to say" whether they were compliant with free movement rules.

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David Cameron's plan to bar new EU migrants from claiming any benefits for three months is being controversially rushed through Parliament

Ministers have taken legal advice to ensure measures to stop EU migrants claiming out-of-work benefits for their first three months in the UK cannot be overturned by the courts, David Cameron has revealed, after the European Commission said it was "too early to say" whether they were compliant with free movement rules.

The Prime Minister told MPs the new measures, being rushed through Parliament today, will ensure that the three-month wait is in place by the time access restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers are lifted on January 1.

Many Conservative MPs fear the changes, at the end of a seven-year transitional period following the eastern European states' entry into the EU in 2007, will lead to a flood of migrants from both countries coming to Britain looking for work.

At Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons, Mr Cameron was challenged by Tory backbencher Philip Davies, who warned: "W hat you are proposing - which will probably be found illegal by the European courts - is really spitting in the wind of the problem we face and the only way to get control of our borders back, and control of our benefits system, is to leave the European Union."

Mr Cameron replied: "The steps that we are taking, including the announcement today, that people coming to the UK should not be able to claim benefits for the first three months - we are taking these steps on the basis of legal advice and looking very carefully at what other countries in the EU do.

"I want to do everything possible to make sure the right of free movement is not abused.

"There is a right to work in different countries of the European Union but there shouldn't be a right to claim in different countries of the European Union. "

When plans for the three-month delay were announced last month, Downing Street said it was unlikely to be in place in time for the arrival of the first migrants taking advantage of their new access rights on New Year's Day.

But the restriction is now being brought forward to come into effect on the first day of 2014.

From that point, with a few exceptions, all migrants from other EU states will have to wait three months before claiming Jobseekers Allowance of up to £71 a week.

After six months on JSA, only those who can provide compelling evidence that they have a genuine chance of finding work will be allowed to continue claiming the benefit.

The European Commission warned that it will be checking the legality of the changes.

"For the moment, it is too early to say whether the new rules are compliant," said Jonathan Todd, spokesman for EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor, who is embroiled in a war of words with Mr Cameron after warning the UK risked being seen as a "nasty" country.

"The UK is obliged to notify changes in social security rules affecting other EU nationals to the Commission and to other member states," Mr Todd said.

"It should do so at the meeting of member states' social security co-ordinators taking place in Vilnius today and tomorrow."

He went on: "In any case, EU nationals going to the UK to look for work are entitled to jobseekers' allowance from their home country for up to three months, and some countries make the allowance available for up to six months."

Reviving the immigration dispute between Brussels and London, Mr Todd said: "There is no evidence that EU nationals go to other EU countries in order to claim benefits or that there is any widespread or systematic abuse by EU nationals of other countries' welfare systems.

"On the contrary, numerous studies show that the vast majority of EU nationals go to other member states to work and that they usually pay more in tax and social security contributions than they receive in benefits because more of them tend to be of working age compared with the population of the host country."

Labour accused Mr Cameron of leaving the tabling of the necessary regulations until the last minute before Parliament rises for its Christmas break on Thursday.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "Labour called for these benefit restrictions nine months ago.

"Yet David Cameron has left it until the very last minute to squeeze this change in.

"Why is the Government leaving everything until the last minute and operating in such a chaotic way?

"Three weeks ago, Theresa May told Parliament she couldn't restrict benefits in time, now the Prime Minister says they can.

"They wouldn't be on the run from angry Conservative backbenchers if they'd listened to us nine months ago."

Other measures in Mr Cameron's package include limiting welfare to six months for EU job seekers with no job prospects; s topping housing benefit claims for EU job seekers; t oughening the "habitual residence" test for claimants; i mposing a 12-month re-entry ban for people who have been removed for begging or sleeping rough; and i ncreasing fines for businesses found not to be paying the national minimum wage.

A poll for The Sun found that 42% of those taking part viewed limiting immigration from EU countries as a priority of the "utmost importance" for the Prime Minister, while a further 20% said it should be a "major aim" and 10% regarded it as "good but not essential".

Just 14% were opposed to changing the current situation.

Some 43% said they would vote now for Britain to leave the EU, against 37% who would support staying in.

But, in a significant vote of confidence in Mr Cameron's policy of holding a referendum in 2017 after a renegotiation of UK membership, more than half (52%) said they would vote to stay in the EU if the PM secured "major" changes, against 23% who would still want to quit.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said Thursday's summit of EU leaders in Brussels will give Mr Cameron his "last chance" to act on Bulgarian and Romanian immigration.

"He must tell fellow EU leaders that the UK will not unconditionally open its border to Bulgaria and Romania on January 1," said Mr Farage, who described Mr Cameron's package as "gesture politics".