David Cameron is preparing to water down plans to ban EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits during their first four years in the country after receiving advice that it is incompatible with European law, pro-EU campaigners have said.
The prime minister has been strongly advised by senior officials on at least two occasions over the past year that the ban, once said to be one of his key demands in renegotiations of Britain’s membership of the EU, would be rejected by other European leaders.
On Wednesday, Downing Street said Cameron remained committed to the proposal, which he first outlined in a speech in November last year. But suspicions that the prime minister will soften the measure have been fuelled by ministers’ refusal to talk in detail about the plan in recent weeks.
The BBC’s Newsnight programme reported that Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, had advised the prime minister that the ban was incompatible with the EU’s core treaties, which guarantee that EU citizens must not face discrimination. Heywood reportedly advised Cameron that any ban on in-work benefits could not last more than six months.
A former senior Whitehall official told the Guardian that civil servants expressed unease about the proposal at the time of Cameron’s speech last year and in the runup to the general election when the prime minister included the proposal in his manifesto.
The former official said: “A lot of advice went to the prime minister on that issue. It was made clear that that was sailing very, very close to the wind in terms of the treaty and in terms of negotiability.”
Downing Street suggested Cameron would mention the proposal next week when he sets out his reform plans in writing for the first time in a letter to the European council president, Donald Tusk.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “The story about the advice the cabinet secretary gave to the PM is not true. The PM remains committed to the proposal that EU migrants should live in the UK for four years before they can claim in-work benefits. That’s what he is negotiating.”
But the pro-EU campaign expects Cameron will water down the measure when his proposals are negotiated in detail by EU leaders at a summit in December. The former senior official said of the proposed four-year ban: “That is problematic. The government will be trying to get a substantial concession in the area of migrant benefits. But it would be surprising if it turned out to have four years written on that. Most people think that is unworkable.
“So the government is finding other ways of getting a concession in an area where there is some receptivity on the part of the richer countries. The trick will be to get something which doesn’t hack off the central Europeans.”
Cameron’s spokesman said: “The prime minister has been clear on four areas where he wants change: on sovereignty, on economic governance, on competitiveness and the welfare and migration issue. Specifically on welfare, as the PM has said, we need to tackle abuses of the right to free movement and deliver changes that ensure our welfare system isn’t an artificial draw for people to come to Britain.”
Boris Johnson has once again insisted that Cameron must secure curbs on the EU’s free movement of people. The London mayor told LBC radio: “There are plenty of businesses, plenty of agricultural businesses and all this, who thrive on total free movement. But the difficulty, really, is for social services, for people who have to look after arrivals in this city, in coping with the influx.”
Cameron had hoped to limit the free movement of people, but he backed away and instead focused on the four-year ban on in-work benefits and an outright ban on out-of-work benefits, after the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned him that he could not change one of the founding principles of the EU.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 4th November 2015 19.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010