Migrants would be forced to ‘earn’ the right to benefits and council housing over several years under explosive plans outlined today by a senior Labour minister.
Margaret Hodge warns British values of openness and tolerance are under threat because of an increasing sense of ‘unfairness’ over immigration. The Culture Minister is calling for a new points system – based on length of residence or national insurance contributions – to determine that only migrants who have made a fair contribution to society get the same rights as local families.
Mrs Hodge, who is facing a General Election challenge from BNP leader Nick Griffin, told the Daily Mail it was time to ‘lance the boil’ of growing discontent over the wave of economic migrants entering Britain. Labour strategists fear there are signs that the far-Right BNP will mount a ‘serious challenge’ in her Barking, East London seat. One recent poll found that 65 per cent of voters believe foreign arrivals get favourable treatment over housing and benefits. It also showed a third of voters support a core policy of the far-Right BNP, proposing that people from ethnic minorities should lose all state benefits, including NHS treatment, to pay for a ‘resettlement policy’ for those wishing to leave the country.
Migrants currently have the right to claim in-work benefits, such as tax credits, if they have a job. Those who have come from the EU must spend a year working in Britain, but can then claim the same level of state support as any citizen. They are treated the same as UK citizens in respect of claims for income support, jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit.
There has been particular controversy in recent years over revelations that taxpayers are funding child benefit for as many as 50,000 children of migrant workers, even though the youngsters still live in their home countries. Migrants qualify for the payments, even if they have left their children behind. British handouts are much higher than in other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe where the cost of living is much lower.
Mrs Hodge was attacked as ‘offensive’ by senior Labour colleagues after calling for a shake-up of housing rules two and half years ago. But last year, the Government announced it was adopting the policy proposal she made to give councils new powers to give local people priority on waiting lists. Now the minister is risking angering colleagues again by going further, with an admission that the Government has failed to address voters’ concerns over immigration.
Her proposal to strip benefits from immigrants who have not been contributing to society for a fixed period will infuriate Left-wing Labour MPs, who argue people cannot be left destitute. But Mrs Hodge insisted: ‘At the moment, people don’t feel the system is fair and we can’t ignore that. If we are serious about reconnecting with people, then we have to listen to what they are saying. ‘We have to lance this boil. This isn’t just a message to my own party, it’s a message to all mainstream parties. ‘If we can demonstrate we are being fair to people, and recognising what they and their families have put into the community, then we can address some of the racist exploitation of the issue that the BNP indulges in.
‘I am talking about economic migrants, not genuine refugees. These are people who choose to come here because they want to improve their quality of life. The idea is people have to earn their rights. ‘I think we need to be radical in our thinking and look at drawing up a point system based on length of residence, citizenship or national insurance contributions which ensures economic migrants can only access social housing and key benefits when they have paid into the system. ‘This isn’t about race, it’s about having a transparent system which people understand and which is fair.’
Mrs Hodge conceded that she had been criticised for suggesting two years ago that economic migrants’ rights should not come before people who were born or lived in Britain for many years. But she added: ‘We need to have an honest conversation about what’s going on in our working class communities. The very mention of immigration causes controversy and the whole debate is often seen through the prism of racism. ‘The result is parties like the BNP tap into people’s frustrations and that’s why we’ve seen a rise in support for them. It’s not because people like what the BNP stand for – in fact people are repulsed by Nick Griffin’s views on the Holocaust and his sympathy with the Nazis.’
Mrs Hodge said she believed arrivals from new EU countries should be made to wait for longer than 12 months before they get the right to the same benefits and support as established British families. ‘We have people staying on council waiting lists for housing for eight to ten years,’ she said.
The minister conceded that some measures aimed at EU, rather than non-EU migrants, might need agreement from other countries. But she added: ‘If we have to argue about this to get action at an EU level, then that is what we must do.’
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the MigrationWatch, said: ‘This sounds like a very promising idea. It’s just a pity that the Government has not done anything about it over the last 13 years.’
Mrs Hodge received 13,826 votes at the last election, a majority of 8,883. The BNP finished only 27 votes behind the Tories on 4,916.