Priti Patel is an elected Member of the Conservative Party Board, the 1922 Committee’s Executive and the Public Administration Select Committee. She is also a member of the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Witham.
The Prime Minister’s plans to reform the EU’s free movement and immigration rules to restrict benefit payments to European nationals are welcome initiatives. For too long, other Europeans have been able to take advantage of the strong and generous welfare system in the UK. Under the last Labour Government and their open door approach to immigration, the numbers of inward migrants soared to record levels as hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans exercised their free movement rights to enter and work in the UK.
Many have families and became eligible to receive benefits for them. The parents of some 40,000 non-UK European children living in their own country are able to receive child benefit payments. There are also around 600,000 European nationals living in the UK who are classed as being economically inactive, and who could be able to access the welfare system and public services. In advance of the removal of transitional controls for the populations of Bulgaria and Romania, and the past experience when hundreds of thousands of A8 nationals came to the UK, few will believe the Bulgarian ambassador to the UK’s prediction that 8,000 of his countrymen will come to the UK. If even a small fraction of the 29 million decided to live in Britain, the impact on our strained infrastructure and stretched public services would be profound.
The free movement of people across the European Union and European Economic Area has historically brought many benefits for business and trade. However, as the European Union has expanded, the almost unrestricted access that 500 million Europeans have to live and work in the UK is adding to the strains on Britain’s public services and infrastructure. With the UK population set to reach 75 million by the mid 2030s, and immigration accounting for two-thirds of this population increase, action needs to be taken by Conservatives to reform Europe’s free movement rules as part of wider efforts to reduce net migration.
While good inroads have been made in reducing the annual net change in migration numbers by clamping down on migration from outside the EU, Conservatives in Government are right to seek reform of the EU’s immigration laws to control numbers. Limiting the entitlement of EU nationals to benefits is one way that the Government can make the UK a less attractive destination. Foreign nationals should not expect to be able to come to the UK and receive benefits.
But instead of embracing the opportunities to reform EU law and engage constructively with the UK, Europe’s political elite continue to insist on claiming that the UK’s approach is wrong and they where would like to see more integration. They go as far as using every step available, including the European Court of Justice, to object to the sanity which Conservative ministers want to restore.
Legal action is pending over Iain Duncan Smith’s changes to eligibility through the habitual residence test and this week, in response to the Prime Minister’s proposals, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, Laszlo Andor, called Britain “nasty”. Commissioner Andor, who is a Hungarian socialist, has also been joined in objecting to reforms by other Commissioners along with the Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak governments.
It is disappointing that commissioners are behaving in this way, although their ill thought, through attempts to coerce, bully and pressure the UK into backing down are not surprising. This behaviour is typical of Europe’s dogmatic approach and conduct towards anyone who dares to challenge them. Indeed, at a time when the UK is debating its membership of the EU and a referendum will happen by the end of 2017 under a majority Conservative Government, it is very short-sighted of the Commission to defy commonsense and antagonise the British public further.
Notwithstanding the attitude of the Commission and some other European governments, Conservatives should put the national interest first and push ahead with developing robust policies to control our borders and protect our welfare system from abuse. Already, under the EU’s Free Movement Directive. those EU nationals exercising their free movement rights do not have an unqualified right to remain in the UK. They should not be a burden on the social assistance system, and can face restrictions on public safety grounds. We should therefore be bold in placing qualifying criteria on EU nationals wanting to stay in the UK and in standing up to challenges by Brussels, as Iain Duncan Smith is doing.
The new rules that the Prime Minister is introducing to stop EU nationals immediately claiming housing benefit and to limit the payment of out of work benefits unless there is a genuine prospect of them finding employment should be vigorously defended. The free movement principle in the EU Treaty is not meant to be a licence to hand out benefits, and the Prime Minister is right to stand up for hard-working taxpayers, who are fed up with the benefits system being abused.
It is also pleasing to see a tough stance being taken on EU nationals caught sleeping rough or begging being deported, and facing a 12 month ban from returning to the UK. In parts of London and the UK, the presence of groups of eastern Europeans begging and sleeping rough in parks blights those communities affected, and the new rules will tackle this. Most people in Britain would find these rules to be a fair way of protecting our welfare system from abuse and keeping the public safe. Only those obsessed with expanding the powers of unelected bureaucrats and judges in Brussels at the expense of national sovereignty and democracy seem likely to object.
In the medium term, the Prime Minister is right to press for more fundamental reforms of the Free Movement Directive and work with like-minded European governments to achieve these objectives. Empowering national governments to curtail new arrivals from other member states if the numbers passed a set threshold and placing limits on free movement from countries with average incomes significantly below the EU average are sensible measures to re-establish some national controls on immigration policy.
Other reforms Conservatives should pursue include a guarantee that the UK is able to determine who can access our welfare system without interference from the EU and the prompt removal of European national offenders to their country of origin.
Unlike the last Labour Government, which destroyed our immigration system, Conservatives have a proud record in implementing new and effective immigration controls. When the next election comes in 2015, the public can be confident that only a Conservative Government will stand up to Europe and bring back powers over EU immigration and the wider impact of EU immigration on the United Kingdom.