Why are we sending child benefit to Poland?
A change in social security law is needed before a new wave of workers from Romania or Bulgaria targets soft-touch Britain.
In a letter to this newspaper at the weekend, the Polish ambassador to London, Witold Sobków, defended the payment of UK benefits to thousands of children who live in Poland while one of their parents works in Britain.
“All of these benefits are being paid in accordance with British law,” he wrote. “The parents of these children work in the UK and pay tax, therefore they are entitled to this financial support.”
What was most intriguing about the ambassador’s letter is that he cited UK law rather than EU regulations to justify this ludicrous state of affairs. I had always assumed that the reason we paid benefits to non-resident children was because we were obliged to under a Brussels directive and had no choice in the matter. Yet a study published yesterday by the campaign organisation Migration Watch says the vast majority of EU countries do not pay child benefit for offspring living outside their territory. The only ones that do, according to the study, are the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands and, of course, us.
How can this be so? Surely if the EU’s social security rules are supposed to be harmonised they must apply equally in every country. The regulations (EC 883/2004, if you want to look them up) are extremely complex, but the reason that benefits are paid on a different basis across the EU appears to depend on whether entitlement is based on residency or employment. If the former, then payments are made only to families actually living in the country; if the latter, then they can be made overseas. We fall into the latter category and now support nearly 50,000 children resident abroad at a cost of around £50 million a year in benefit and child credit.
How can this possibly be justified? Those who say we have to abide by the rules of the club must explain why so many countries don’t. Furthermore, where child benefit is concerned, the rules make no sense. This is, after all, a payment specifically made to defray the additional costs of bringing up a family. In which case, if it is to be paid at all for children living abroad it should be at the same rate that applies in the country where the child lives.
The equivalent benefit in Poland is worth around £20 a month, whereas here it is £81.20 for the first child and £53.60 for the second and subsequent children. So this isn’t even fair to Polish taxpayers, let alone British. If a Polish builder comes to the UK, leaving his family behind, then his children will qualify for benefit worth four times the amount paid to a resident Polish family living next door, even though their outgoings are the same.
While the primary reason for moving around the EU may well be to find a job, the prospect of receiving generous benefits that can be sent home must act as an incentive, especially for workers from Europe’s poorer nations. The EU rules stipulate that “in cases where family benefits are based on employment or self-employment in both states, the state where the children reside takes precedence provided that a parent works there, otherwise the state where the highest amount is paid is responsible”. Those who say that benefits do not act as a pull factor for immigration within the EU need look no further than that.
This is why Government ministers are so concerned about the next expected wave of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria when temporary controls lapse at the end of this year. Family assistance and other welfare payments are low in those two countries by comparison to the UK or Germany, so the incentive to go somewhere with comparatively high in-work benefits is obvious to all but the most starry-eyed Europhile.
So what do ministers intend to do about it? Judging by the way they have handled the child benefit issue, precious little. Before the last election, Philip Hammond, who was then a shadow Treasury spokesman, said: “With Britain facing a debt crisis and the Government’s child poverty strategy in tatters, it beggars belief that [Britain] is continuing to send millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to children who don’t even live in this country.”
You might have thought such a forthright denunciation was the harbinger of some action to stop it; but nearly three years later all that has happened on the child benefit front is that it has been taken away from high earners and is no longer universal. Last autumn, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said she had asked officials to see if the benefits system was attracting people to this country. This implied that Bulgarians and Romanians could be denied welfare benefits as a way of preventing an influx on a scale similar to that seen when Poland and other eastern European countries joined in 2004. But does anyone for a moment think this will happen? How long before benefit is being paid for children who are left behind in Romania or Bulgaria while their fathers come to Britain to work?
In fact, according to the Romanian ambassador, Ion Jinga, many of his countrymen are already working here illegally, having bypassed the labour market restrictions that were imposed after the two new members joined. Once they are legally entitled to work here, they would be mad not to avail themselves of the in-work benefits and tax credits for their children back home. And who could blame them? As the Polish ambassador said in his letter, these benefits are being paid out “in accordance with British law”.
In which case, we should change the law.
Philip Johnston, Telegraph online here
Last Updated (Thursday, 07 February 2013 16:43)