UK Politics

Clegg backs curbs on EU migrant benefits

Nick Clegg Image copyright Getty Images

Nick Clegg has outlined his proposals to curb benefits to European Union migrants, during a meeting with his German counterpart in Berlin.

The deputy PM insists the UK could find allies in Europe to support efforts to tackle "benefits tourism" - without challenging free movement in the EU.

He discussed the issue with Germany's Sigmar Gabriel.

UK PM David Cameron is due to set out his own plans to restrict EU migration later on Friday.

But Mr Clegg warned the Conservatives were in danger of making "irresponsible declarations" on Europe in a bid to quell unrest at the rise of UKIP.

'Wild overpromising'

"If the prime minister asserts that a Tory government will introduce caps or overall quotas on the number of EU migrants coming here, we will find ourselves in the worst of all worlds," Mr Clegg wrote in the Financial Times.

"UKIP will say it is not enough. Europe will say it is not possible. Once again the British people will be plunged into a cycle of wild overpromising and inevitable disappointment, their scepticism confirmed."

Instead he suggests that migrants could be prevented from claiming the government's new Universal Credit benefit until they have "worked and contributed" to the system.

He also proposed restricting access to in-work benefits like tax credits, suggesting that migrants could be required to work the equivalent of full-time hours on the minimum wage in order to qualify.

Mr Clegg argued that Mr Cameron's speech could put the British economy at risk if he proposed measures that would jeopardise the country's EU membership in an effort to win back supporters from Nigel Farage's UKIP.

'Pay something into the pot'

In the FT he argued that Mr Farage wanted to "pull up the drawbridge", conceding that it was a "message that has played well" in the by-elections at Clacton and Rochester and Strood.

"The bigger danger now is that a rattled Conservative Party resorts to equally irresponsible declarations, in a bid to calm their own ranks," he said.

Mr Clegg believes it is possible to work with European allies to secure reform within the existing freedom of movement rules.

The BBC understands he is considering a minimum of six months of contributions before the entitlement threshold would be reached.

Ahead of his meeting with German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the Lib Dem leader said: "I have already proposed that we work with other states to stop EU migrants from claiming child benefit for children who are not living here.

"As a first step, we should pay the same rate as the country in which those children reside. In the UK it is about £80 a month, whereas in Poland it is less than half that. And there are other proposals we must now explore."

Benefits

He added: "As we streamline our welfare system by combining a range of benefits in a single Universal Credit, we should make sure that only migrants who have worked and contributed can receive support.

"New jobseekers should not be eligible. Applying the same principle - that support should be reserved for migrants who are paying something into the pot - we should look at increasing the earnings threshold for in-work benefits such as tax credits.

"EU migrants could, for example, be required to work the equivalent of full-time hours on the minimum wage in order to qualify."

Mr Clegg said Germany was pursuing five year re-entry bans for migrants involved in identity or benefit fraud, suggesting that "we must see if we can strengthen our laws as well".

Liberal Democrat Justice Minister Simon Hughes said the view he hears most from constituents is that migrants who travel to the UK to work should not qualify for benefits automatically.

"The right to travel, the right to work is one thing. The right to claim benefits is something else and doesn't follow," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

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