David Cameron has been arguing for an immediate suspension of the availability of in-work benefits for European migrants. If the press reports are to be believed:
- Cameron wants to suspend in-work benefits to European migrants until they have been in Britain for four years
- the European Commission has proposed the possibility of an ’emergency brake’ for countries under pressure
- the ’emergency brake’ would depend on agreement of all EU members, and could only be applied once.
Very little about this makes any immediate sense. Britain’s benefit system is not under extraordinary pressure either in general, or from migrants in particular. The main source of pressure is government policy. Discrimination against EU migrants invites equivalent discrimination against Britons living abroad (and some of the countries they go to really are under pressure). A four-year ban is timed to make this an issue in the next General Election. It is very debatable whether the specifics of any deal will swing any votes in the forthcoming EU referendum, one way or another.
However, one issue lurking under this does matter. It’s been recognised for years in social policy that there is no difference in principle between tax reliefs – “fiscal welfare” – and benefits. Child Benefit was created, specifically and explicitly,to combine the family allowance and the Child Tax Allowance, because there was no real difference between them. The EU has begun from the ‘fundamental’ principle that when workers move, they should not be subject to barriers. Despite that, the Commission, the Council and now the Court of Justice have been prepared to accept discrimination in the area of some benefits (such as the residence requirements for non-contributory benefits for people with disabilities), while expressing reservations about discrimination in others. That position is not sustainable and needs to be addressed.