When the UK signed up to the free movement of workers and the single market, the idea was that anyone could come from the rest of the EU to get a job in the UK if they wished, and any UK citizen could do the same in other EU countries. Benefits were a matter for national governments to settle and pay for. The previous Conservative government was always careful to protect Parliamentary sovereignty on all welfare issues, regarding these as central to UK budgets and of vital interest to UK taxpayers and benefit recipients.
Under Labour the free movement of workers elided into the free movement of working age people, and the issue of welfare benefits was blurred between EU and UK jurisdiction. The precedent developed that anyone gaining a low paid job here in the UK from another EU country qualified for an expanded range of in work benefits at UK rates paid for by UK taxpayers. It also became established that EU migrants using the EU freedom of movement provision could qualify for unemployment benefits. This drift was partly UK policy, and partly court judgements and pressures from the EU. I do not recall us having a major debate and vote in Parliament on the principle of more generous benefit distribution to EU migrants, but somehow we started to be more generous in eligibility to EU migrants than to migrants from elsewhere.
Today many UK taxpayers and citizens think that when it comes to benefits EU migrants should be treated like working migrants from non EU countries. There is a growing worry about the generosity of our system to EU visitors at a time of retrenchment in national welfare budgets. Later this year the transitional provisions which limit the numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians that can come to the UK will be lifted. Many are asking how many people might arrive here, and what are the rules concerning in work and out of work benefits for them?
The Prime Minister and other Ministers are well aware of the sensitivity of this problem. They are looking at ways of altering the current position without falling foul of EU rules and court decisions. The options seem to include:
1. Changing UK benefit rules to make them more based on contributions. If a person had to contribute through National Insurance for a specified time, new migrants would not automatically qualify for such benefits. Young people who had been in school and College here for a specified number of years could also qualify. It is said that France and Germany have a system more based on contributions which is legal under EU rules.
2. Introduce a Work permit scheme for migrants from other EU states, which gives them the freedom to work here but does not give them access to the full range of benefits that UK citizens enjoy.
3. Negotiate a new arrangement with the EU either over benefits or to prolong the transitional arrangements for entry of Romanians and Bulgarians.
I appreciate many readers just want to pull out fo the EU altogether to avoid this kind of issue and re-establish our own national rules over all these matters. However, there is no sign of the current Parliament wishing to do this, so the government does have to consider how it can either negotiate a solution or find one within current EU law.
The government does not wish to forecast how many people we might be talking about. The last Labour government had a hopelessly wrong forecast at the time of the admission of the last Eastern European members. As a result the UK needed many more extra homes and jobs than was imagined in the official plans and forecasts. The difficulty in guessing how many might find the UK attractive means there is even more pressure on the government to find a solution to this problem. The BBC has attempted to guess that it could be several hundred thousand. The truth is, no-one knows.