Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, said yesterday that in future a residence test will be applied to all those claiming income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit.
The new criterion of 'habitual residence' aims to weed out what Mr Lilley described at last year's Tory party conference as the 'benefit tourists' who come to Britain and live at the taxpayer's expense.
The attack came after a magistrates' court in London launched an assault on the practice, when several Europeans living on benefits were convicted of shoplifting and burglary.
The test has been framed to clamp down on European Union and other foreign nationals claiming welfare, while allowing British people who have lived abroad to use the benefits system on their return. The move would bring Britain into line with most of the 12 EU member states.
Proof of 'habitual residence', a concept recognised in British and EU law, will involve claimants demonstrating a history of employment in Britain, or an established home here. Framing rules to stop 'benefit tourism' has been difficult as EU law requires the free movement of labour and equality of treatment for nationals in each member state.
Mr Lilley said: 'There is a growing recognition that the UK system is open to abuse. I share the concern about the potential growth of 'benefit tourism' if this loophole is left open.' The plan which had gone out for consultation 'will target assistance on those who have paid their contributions, paid their taxes, and who intend to pay their own way in future by finding work.'
He explained: 'All last summer there were specific cases being reported in the press and we were constantly being berated by London magistrates where people had found they could get British benefits and there was nothing we could do to stop it.'
He said most countries already applied the rules he was proposing while, in contrast, Britain was 'rather liberal and unique'. He added: 'This is becoming increasingly known. It is a loophole which is becoming increasingly exploited.'
The new rules will chiefly affect continental Europeans, but they will also have an impact on the Irish. More than 100,000 ex-patriots and 6,000 Irish nationals come into Britain each year - but it is not known how many will be affected. The Government's own consultation document admits that some will 'undoubtedly' fail the new residence test.
Home Office officials estimate around 5,000 European nationals living in Britain claiming income support will lose out under the plans.
Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said that he would support the new measure if it stopped misuse of the system. 'I am certainly in favour of striking out benefit abuse. If people are coming here only to get money which they would not otherwise get, then I support this action.'Reuse content