Letter:Beveridge cure for "benefit tourism"

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The Independent Online
From Mr Paul Bower

Sir: Peter Lilley's new habitual residency test, designed, he boasts, to eradicate "benefit tourists", is flawed in its conception and patently unjust in its application ("Thousands of Britons are failing benefit test", 23 March). A person returning from a short spell working abroad can now be refused all benefits, despite having paid tax and NI contributions for the 30 years prior to leaving the UK. Claimants are now judged not on their past contribution but on their "future intention". This vague concept is left up to the variable interpretation of junior staff at the DSS.

Conversely, an Irish citizen who has never set foot in the UK can enter the country and claim income support and housing benefit because Eire is deemed to be part of the "Common Travel Area". As a result, the Republic is excluded from the provisions of the Habitual Residency Test.

Perhaps Peter Lilley would like to explain the logic behind this welfare paradox in his next interview with the Independent.

However, as someone who has worked in an unemployment benefit office, I can state that "benefit tourism" is not just a concept invented to excite the prejudices of the Tory party conference. In the summer of 1993, almost half the new claims taken at the central London office where I worked were from Italian and Spanish nationals.

Many of these newly arrived "Euro-claimants" were recently qualified journalists and lawyers from middle-class families in Madrid and Milan. Clearly, the impoverished sons and daughters of unemployed agricultural workers cannot afford a plane ticket and a month's deposit on a flat in Knightsbridge. It was costing British taxpayers of all nationalities uncounted millions.

On the other hand, British citizens wishing to claim benefit in Spain would, not unreasonably, be told to return when they had paid something into the system before they tried to take something out.

The UK is alone in Europe in that we now have a benefit system in which what you pay in bears no relation to what you can expect to get out. To receive your miserly £45.45 unemployment benefit for 12 months (soon to be six under the Job Seeker's Allowance), you have to have paid full Class 1 contributions for both of the two tax years previous to the calendar year in which you claim. Self-employed contributions do not count.

I suggest that rather than devise arbitrary residency tests, Peter Lilley should return to the Beveridge principles of unemployment insurance as opposed to blanket welfare. Strict enforcement of Articles 49 and 50 of the Treaty of Rome, which forbid citizens becoming a "charge against the state", would provide better protection against benefit tourism than the present test.

Yours sincerely,

PAUL BOWER

Councillor (Lab)

Borough of Hounslow

Hounslow, Middlesex

27 March

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