LEADING ARTICLE:Lilley's frosty welcome home

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The Independent Online
Imagine returning to Britain from abroad, perhaps because of a broken marriage, political instability, ill-health or simply because you want to come home. You have made arrangements to take up a job, but suddenly everything falls through. Never mind, you think, it may take a while to find another job, but the welfare state will tide me over for a few weeks. Amid the trauma of upheaval, there is at least that much comfort.

Wrong. More and more returnees are finding that not only does the British weather seem worse. They are also discovering that the social security system is turning its back on them. They may have been born in Britain, hold British citizenship and have paid British taxes for years. Yet, even if they have only been living across the Channel, they may find themselves refused any state financial help on the grounds that they have not been "habitually resident" here.

The results of this policy are harsh, as we report today on page 5. Thousands of citizens, whose willingness to travel abroad demonstrates their independence, are finding themselves destitute, relying on charity for subsistence.

The reason for changing the rules was Peter Lilley's desire to win over the Conservative Party conference in 1993, when he promised to stamp out "benefit tourism", as foreign idlers were supposedly drawn to exploit the British welfare state. The Tory faithful warmed to this xenophobic message and last year the Secretary of State for Social Security duly introduced legislation to remove benefit entitlement from those who could not prove "habitual residence".

Yet Mr Lilley failed to provide evidence of widespread abuse of the benefit system by so-called Canadian and Australian backpackers. Nor did he heed the misgivings about such a change expressed by John Major in 1986, when he was a social security minister. At that time, Mr Major ruled out a blanket residence test on the grounds that it "would be too rigid, too cumbersome and perhaps unfair. It could have excluded people such as ... British citizens turning from abroad, UK citizens on work contracts returning home."

The accuracy of the Prime Minister's foresight is now evident. But there is a simple remedy to a problem which is of the Government's own making. No one, apart from lone parents, is entitled to claim income support unless he or she is available for work. If that requirement is policed properly, the authorities should be able to stop payments to any "benefit tourists". This is a cheap and discriminating way of preventing abuse, while ensuring that citizens who are genuinely needy get the necessary help.

Mr Lilley should swallow his pride, drop the new residence test and rely instead on the availability-to-work requirement. Otherwise, he will be remembered as the first Social Security Secretary to leave a group of resident British citizens without a welfare safety net.