The government is facing a crisis in its efforts to prevent European foreign nationals from coming to the UK to claim benefits, Iain Duncan Smith has said.
The work and pensions secretary told MPs he was seeking an urgent meeting with the EU to look at the way the European commission was interpreting the free movement of labour to interfere with member states' welfare policies.
He said he wanted to tighten the habitual residence test, one of the rules that determines whether EU citizens have access to benefits. He said: "We are trying to change the rules so that it can be a much tougher test about the period they [EU citizens] spend here and the commitment they make to the UK."
At the moment he said the test "makes no requirement over timing and the length of time you commit to be in the UK – that is an area we have to challenge and will challenge so the European court recognises that you need to make a commitment to the country you are in before you can start drawing things down from that same country".
He said he was discussing with the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, plans to require councils to publish the number of foreigners being given access to social housing ahead of UK nationals.
He said the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, would be sending fresh guidance to GPs and hospitals setting out the rules on when they are required to provide treatment to foreign nationals. "The reality has been GPs and health services overstate their responsibilities with regards to people coming in who are migrants."
The health secretary, he disclosed, was looking at issuing "very clear instructions that they do not have to do this and making it clear they need not fear being challenged" by the EU.
He suggested that with universal credit it would be much easier to shut the door on EU nationals who came to the UK claiming to be self-employed and seeking benefits. He said universal credit gave "an ideal opportunity to resist the need to pay tax credits to people who come to the UK for the first time and claim to be self-employed".
In response to reports that he would need to withdraw access to benefits for UK nationals as well, Duncan Smith said: "My view is that this is not the case. I am not aware of any such discussions, or such facts being placed in front of me. I would not be keen for that to happen." But he was also forced to admit that, rather than tightening the rules on EU citizens claiming benefits, he was under pressure from the EU to loosen them.
He said: "For the last two years I have been fighting a rearguard action over what was left to me by the last government."
He added: "The commission is using the free movement to enter the realm of social security, which has never been their remit."
He claimed Germany had belatedly woken up to the problem, but that he was being urged by Tory backbench MPs simply not to pay any EU fines imposed for refusing to pay benefits.
Duncan Smith was responding to an urgent question from Labour MP Frank Field following days of reports on government plans to crack down on EU access to benefits.
The reports come against a backdrop of a longstanding dispute between the UK and the commission over whether UK rules on access to benefits are indirectly discriminatory against non-UK EU citizens by imposing an additional test that UK citizens are not required to pass.
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