Carol Laidlaw, an expert on welfare rights, writes about Immigrants and the Social Security system.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people complain that immigrants “can claim everything” as soon as they arrive in the country, or that they “take our council houses”. It is a lie but an oddly persistent one. It has taken on the status of an urban myth.
After working in welfare rights for 18 years, I can definitely state that immigrants do not “get everything” as soon as they arrive in the UK. What they can claim depends on their immigration status and why they are here. Many are allowed into the UK only on condition that they “have no recourse to public funds.” The rules that apply to migrants are as complex as any other part of the social security system, but in general few immigrants can access welfare benefits on the same terms as British citizens, and those from outside the EEA (European Economic Area, which includes all the EU countries plus Iceland, Sweden and Switzerland) have fewer rights than those from within it. And a distinction is made between contributory benefits, those that are only available to people who have worked and paid national insurance contributions, and means-tested, or income-based, benefits.
Asylum seekers are people who have applied to the Home Office for leave to remain because they are fleeing persecution in their home countries. They have no right to claim any benefits at all. They are supported out of a separate public fund administered by NASS (National Asylum Support Service). Each asylum seeker gets £35 per person per week, and if they have no relatives or friends who can accommodate them, they are given somewhere to live. This is always private, not public, accommodation and it is given on the same terms as occupying a hotel: asylum seekers can be put out at a day’s notice if they break the rules. They can also be relocated at random from one part of the country to another. Imagine the State being able to order you to move house whenever it wants?
If asylum seekers get leave to remain they become refugees and are allowed to work and can claim benefits and apply for public housing on the same terms as British citizens. They do not get any privileges, they have to meet the same criteria and jump through the same hoops as everybody else.
People from outside the European Economic Area may have visas to come to Britain to work or study, but this is on condition that they have no recourse to public funds. They may not claim social security benefits or get council housing. However those who work and pay national insurance contributions can, in practice, claim contributory benefits. Technically, these benefits count as “public funds” but officialdom imposes no penalties on foreigners who claim them. I do not know why. It could possibly be because they want to maintain the idea that such benefits are ones that people pay for through their national insurance contributions, and so they have earned them.
European Economic Area citizens can claim benefits in the UK because there are reciprocal agreements that allow them to. But there is no such thing as “benefit tourism”. People from abroad have to have lived in Britain for from one to three months to establish that they are habitually resident here before they can claim means-tested benefits. In addition, a new rule was imposed on EEA nationals in 2014. In order to retain the right to benefits, European nationals must keep their worker status. If they are out of work for more than four months, they are considered to have no reasonable prospect of finding work and all their means-tested benefits are stopped. They are left with nothing. There are very few exceptions to this rule.
In my experience, having their benefit income stopped does not cause EEA nationals to return to their home country because they still believe that they have more opportunity to find work in Britain. Those who stay may end up making use of charitable services for homeless people, which do not discriminate on grounds of nationality, or they may add to the demands on social services departments. Under the Children Act, social services must provide for children where their welfare would be at risk.
This can involve them giving housing, fuel and a small amount of housekeeping money to families with children who would otherwise be street homeless. This probably costs the state as much as simply letting the family claim benefits.
Of course, all these rules will change again when – if – the UK leaves the European Union. It is very unlikely that the social security rules will be made more generous towards immigrants.