This week the European Commission has retaliated against British efforts to tighten residency restrictions on those EU nationals who qualify as claimants for UK benefits, citing the UK government's consistent refusal to provide evidence backing up concerns relating to 'benefit tourism'.
This claim is, however, misleading because in many cases claims made by foreign migrants are impossible to audit because the facilities are not in place to properly record this information.
Through my own research in introducing the NHS Audit Requirements (Foreign National) Bill to Parliament last year, which initiated the debate on specifically 'health tourism', I found that most NHS trusts at best only cursorily audit the treatment of foreign nationals not entitled to automatic free healthcare and GP practices do not record this information at all.
Having sent Freedom of Information Act requests to 445 UK health trusts comprising of Primary Care Trusts, Foundation Trusts, Acute Trusts and so on, enquiring as to whether they screen foreign patients for auditing purposes, what was extremely concerning was that only 105 Trusts were able to respond with data at all. Information, therefore, was only supplied by less than a quarter of NHS organisations, and what data that did exist was patchy at best.
Indeed, one poll of NHS managers showing that a third of them did not routinely ask patients about their eligibility for free care. GPs may choose to register any person as an NHS patient and indeed are actively encouraged to register all those who approach them, even where an individual has no right to free NHS care. Thus many foreign nationals receive free primary care, including free prescriptions, and once registered with a GP have essentially unlimited access via referral throughout the NHS without charge.
Clearly, the semblance of a system that is at best varied, confused and obscure, and at worst is chaotic, inadequate and non-existent.
It is also worth noting that this is all in spite of the fact that British residents encounter a nominal charge for access to primary health care in many other European countries; notably France and Germany where an entry fee for primary care is required and in Spain where proof of insurance is needed.
What is clear is that the current system is not working, which is why the Government is right to look at changes across the board to restrict 'benefit tourism'. The British public are asking how it can be fair that a non-British EU national can take advantage of the UK's generous welfare system despite never having contributed in return and so this Government is taking action to address these concerns.
It is not for the European Commission to determine UK immigration rules and so British taxpayers' money is better spent re-doubling efforts to stem the chilling effect of the eurozone crisis on the Union's trade exports rather than contributing towards the Commission's legal challenge to the UK government's attempts to restrict 'benefit tourism'.
In many ways this issue exemplifies the overarching flaw in the European ideal - the EU is too focused on becoming a political entity rather than seeking to enhance the general prosperity of member states' citizens. This legal challenge, together with the reams of unnecessary, bureaucratic red tape that fly out of Brussels serve as a constant reminder of the need to reform the European Union - www.letbritaindecide.com
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