Benefits: EU Nationals — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 7th November 2011.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 2:37 pm, 7th November 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to change the rules under which citizens of other European Union member states have access to the United Kingdom benefits system.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

My Lords, we do not propose to change the way DWP determines benefit entitlement for EU nationals, but we are considering the details of a European Commission reasoned opinion against the right to reside test. While we accept our responsibility in supporting EU nationals who work and contribute here, it is absolutely necessary that we protect our welfare system from those who come here with no intention of working or looking for work.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

I fully understand the point the Minister makes but it is nevertheless a fact that on 29 September 2011 a reasoned opinion was issued which states that the EU Commission believes that we are contravening EU law. What steps do the Government intend to take in order to protect our system from additional and currently unaffordable demands?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

My Lords, we are moving in two directions. First, we are looking hard at the Commission's opinion and considering whether we should go to court. We have two months in which to take that decision and the likelihood is that we will take it through the full legal process. The second area is the political one. We are talking to other countries which are also deeply disturbed about this. Some 13 countries have signed a motion calling for a minute statement and for a policy debate on this matter.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords since some 900,000 UK citizens are migrants in other European Union countries, I am sure my noble friend the Minister would like to protect the reciprocity which exists for both EU citizens and others coming here, as well as our citizens in other countries. Will he comment on the information we have received from the European Commission about the intention to extend reciprocity to North African countries? Can he tell us what line he will take with the European Commission on this matter?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

My Lords, we are going to take a pretty robust line on this matter. We have an opt-out from the Lisbon treaty which we have been using for African nationals where there are third-country agreements, in particular Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Again, currently we have legal differences with the Commission on this matter, which is looking for ways to get around our opt-out, but we are determined that we will retain it.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Labour

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what the uprating arrangements are for benefits that are exported? We are aware that by generally switching uprating to CPI, the Government are seeking to reduce the income mostly of poor people by some 10 billion a year in 2015-16. Will the Minister take this opportunity to denounce any suggestion that benefit uprating in the UK for upcoming years will not at least keep pace with CPI?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

My Lords, we have had this discussion during the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill and I have made it absolutely clear that I am not going to comment on that particular question in any way.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, can my noble friend comment on the fact that EU law requires equal treatment between citizens of member states, but not within member states? So we have the absurd position in Scotland, for example, where English, Welsh and Irish residents have to pay university fees of 36,000 while for Scottish students, along with French, German, Italian and other European students, they are free. Is that not grossly unfair and should not the law be changed so that residents in other parts of the United Kingdom are treated in the same way as EU citizens?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

My Lords, I am being taken well off my brief which is concerned with benefits, so I will not comment on that question either.

Photo of Lord McAvoy Lord McAvoy Labour

My Lords, the issue of reciprocity was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord German. Have the Government ever calculated the cost of reciprocity in terms of how much it costs the United Kingdom to pay benefits to EU nationals and what our 900,000 people get back?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

My Lords, amazingly, we do not have those data, but that is clearly not the present Government's problem as we are looking to get those data. Our concern is that, if we let in benefit tourists in the way the Commission is looking for us to do, the costs of doing that could be up to 2.5 billion a year. Noble Lords will be absolutely aware that we have many better ways of spending that money on people who are in this country and who have been making a contribution to this country.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

When are the Government going to comment on the uprating? A lot of people out there in the country will want to know.

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

I have already made my position on that absolutely clear.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, everybody has sympathy with a Minister when they are taken off brief, but does the Minister understand that, in this House, he answers not just for his department but for the Government? I think we would all be grateful if he would undertake to give the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, an answer, perhaps in written form at a later date. Is the Minister aware that he is accountable to this House and that, when he is asked a question which is reasonable, it is not up to him to say that he is just not going to answer it?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

My Lords, my responsibility is to answer questions in this particular area, which I am very happy to do. If noble Lords have a question in this area, I will be delighted to answer it.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

In this particular area, the Minister still has not answered the question put by two of my colleagues. They did not ask whether benefits are going to be uprated by 5.2 per cent, as they should be, but when the Government are going to tell us. It is the time that we want to know; not a definitive statement now. Will he now answer that question?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud Conservative

My Lords, as noble Lords will be well aware, there is an autumn Statement where these things are declared. That is the answer.