27/11/2013 12:41 GMT | Updated 27/11/2013 12:42 GMT

EU Migrant Benefits: Are Britons Ripped Off Or Would We Get A Better Deal Moving Abroad?

David Cameron has been warned Britain is at risk of being seen as a "nasty country" as he presses ahead with a clampdown on benefits for migrants.

In an outspoken intervention, European employment commissioner Laszlo Andor labelled the move as an "unfortunate over-reaction" and cautioned Cameron not to interfere with rules underpinning the European single market, saying it could be the start of a "slippery slope".

The Prime Minister has announced he will stop new arrivals from the European Union getting out-of-work benefits for three months.

Brits abroad - the IPPR's study from 2010

Britain is oft-portrayed in the right-wing press as a "soft touch" when it comes to generous benefits. But is it? And what are British citizens entitled to when they move abroad?


Millions of Brits live in other EU countries, where they are entitled to claim benefits and have access to healthcare, enjoying the same rights as people born in those countries.

"We estimate there are just over 1m Brits living in Spain for at least part of the year and a good number of them are pensioners," explained the Institute for Public Policy Research's research fellow Glenn Gottfried.

"It's going to be a highly disproportionate, the average age of a Brit living in Spain to a Spanish person living in the UK.

"The pensioners are far more likely to receive medical attention, and use the healthcare system. The likelihood of a Spanish person needing the healthcare system here is far less."

Many EU countries where Brits are entitled to receive treatment, though not Spain, have higher health per capita government spending on health than the UK, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Germany, France, Sweden and Belgium.

"When it comes to those working abroad, in Germany and France British people have a right to childcare benefits too," Gottfried pointed out.

But many countries do have a different benefits system, says Gottfried. "In the UK it is a means-tested system, where as in Sweden, for example, it depends one what you contribute to the system overall."

It is a common myth that EU migrants, or Brits abroad for that matter, can walk straight from the airport or ferry into the Job Centre to pocket their dole money.

EU workers can remain in the UK for three months, but if they do not get a job or have sufficient financial means to support themselves, then they cannot stay in the country, much less claim benefits, the European Commission in the UK has pointed out.

"If you really want to change immigration within the European Union, it comes down to your labour market, and it's easier to enter and exit it in the UK, than say, Sweden which has more worker protection rights," Gottfried told HuffPost UK.

"The UK is a more attractive place for migrants to get a quick job, work and be spat back out, that's how the system works here.

"Migrants that come here are working, the changing benefit system doesn't mean much. This is all political rhetoric, this is the coalition trying to show they are doing something, even defy EU rules."

According to Department of Work and Pensions estimates, of the 1.44m people claiming JSA in 2011, 8.5% of these were non-UK nationals, of which fewer than 38,000 claimants were from EU countries (approximately 2.6%).

Around twice as many non-EU nationals are claiming JSA in 2013 as non-British EU nationals. And the claimant rate for EU nationals of working age is around 3%, compared to about 4.5% for the native population.

In many European countries, Britons are entitled to claim unemployment benefits if they have worked for over a year, and even if they have not worked at all, in some cases.

In Spain for example, a British migrant must have been employed and paid contributions into the social security system to receive the dole, or 'el paro'.

The amount of benefit received by unemployed workers varies depending on how long they were employed. If it was less than a year, an unemployment subsidy can still be paid as long as the resident worked for at least three months, is registered as a job seeker, and undertakes similar obligations as Job Centres require in the UK.

If a British migrant has worked in the UK, those social security payments made in the UK can count toward unemployment benefits in Spain.

In France, you need to have worked for at least four months to receive the benefit, known as "allocation chômage", and the amount is calculated on a scale according to your previous salary.

Much of what Cameron announced on Wednesday is legislation already enshrined in UK law, in the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006, such as the announcement that those found begging or sleeping rough could be deported and barred from re-entry for 12 months unless they can show they have a proper reason to be in the UK, such as a job.

Should Cameron wish to avoid a legal confrontation with the EU, he would be better off working with other European countries, who probably agree there is a problem with migration, Gottfried said.

"It's not like other countries aren't thinking the same thing, Germany and the Netherlands have both openly said so. But this is burning bridges for David Cameron because if he really wants to instigate European change, he should be making this an issue with European partners, to discuss, how change might be brought about.

"Others in Europe might listen. But this approach is 'we've got an election in a year-and-a-half', and this is about proving something to voters."