Iain Duncan Smith prepares for 'big battle' with EU over benefits

Mr Duncan Smith said "a number of countries" supported the UK's position

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The UK is facing a "big battle" in the EU institutions over rules governing access to benefits, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said.

On the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Mr Duncan Smith accused EU officials of trying to "take control" of polices previously left to member states.

"Social security and welfare has never been in the province of the European Union," he said.

But Labour accused ministers of "windy rhetoric" on access to benefits.

The government is trying to tighten the requirements on who is able to claim benefits in the UK, Mr Duncan Smith said.

'Fight'

One way to do this would be to change the rules so that fewer migrants are deemed to be "habitual residents".

Controls on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals coming to live and work in the UK will be removed in 2014, but the secretary of state denied that these two countries were being "singled out", since the government wants the new rules to "apply to everybody".

The work and pensions secretary accused the European Commission of trying to "reach in... so they can take control" of welfare policy: "We should say: 'No, this is set by national governments.'"

Start Quote

I think what we need is action from the government, rather than windy rhetoric about what they're going to do”

End Quote Ed Miliband Labour leader

"That's a big battle that I'm having with the Europeans," he said. "They're already trying to infract me over the strength of our position, on habitual residency tests.

"They're trying to say that we don't have the right to do any kind of tests."

But the UK had found some allies in Europe, he said: "People like the Dutch and the Scandinavians are all on our side. So there's a big fight.

"We think, all of us, those northern European countries, we need to tighten up. We've got a number of countries on our side, and I think we will be able to tighten up and make those regulations much tougher for people coming in just to take advantage of our benefits system."

The work and pensions secretary said the European Commission had "got to understand" that "people shouldn't use the free movement rules just to travel around, looking for the best benefits they can get".

'Pointless'

But, in response to a question on whether he would like the UK to abandon the policy of freedom of movement within the EU entirely, he said: "No, because... we are beneficiaries as much as anybody else is, about many British people going to work abroad.

"So it's getting the balance right: we want people to be able to travel to work, but we don't want them to be able to travel to claim benefits."

He also described attempts to predict the number of Romanians and Bulgarians that would come to live in the UK as "pretty pointless".

Last month Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told the BBC's Sunday Politics he had seen such an estimate but did not have confidence in it.

Mr Duncan Smith said it was possible to get a "better picture" of where they would be likely to settle if you "look at where the Romanians have gone already".

"The majority of Romanians have settled at the moment in Germany, and ironically in Spain, where I thought there was a real problem with jobs.

"We are ready though to make sure that they can't come here and claim benefits."

'Rogue employers'

In an interview for BBC 5Live's Pienaar's Politics, Mr Miliband warned the government: "Don't start floating things unless you know that they're actually possible to be done."

He said Labour would closely examine any proposals to limit access to benefits for Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants.

But he added: "I think it's very, very important that you don't raise people's expectations and then find that you can't actually make a difference."

The opposition leader urged the government to "clamp down on rogue employers, who bring people in and then pay less than the minimum wage, who have 10 to 15 people in a house.

"All of those things undercut workers already here, and exploit workers coming here. I think what we need is action from the government, rather than windy rhetoric about what they're going to do."

Immigration had been "good for our country, socially, economically, culturally", he added.

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