Demagnetisation of Social Security and Health Care for Migrants to the UK

AuthorNeville Harris
Date01 June 2016
Publication Date01 June 2016
130 Intersentia
N H*
Over the past two decade s, starting with the social security ‘ habitual residence’ test, UK
governments have maintained a consi stent policy of restricting the access of migrants to
welfare bene ts and public h ealth care. It has represented a response to increa sed levels of
inward migration  ow, including anticipated increases arising f rom enlarged European
Union (EU) membership, and the supposed ‘magnetic pull’ of UK welfare and he alth
care systems to migrants. Adjust ment of the bene t rules a ecting EUmigrants, which
has at times come very close to cros sing lines of legality under EUlaw, has lately featured
prominently in the UK’s proposals to the EU over the terms of it s Union membership.
e article focuses on the policy changes and legal developments, including c ase law,
across the areas of social assi stance bene ts, state retirement pensions and health care,
and assesses their impact , seeking to analyse the changing position of residence as an
issue in entitlement and its implication s.
Keywords: bene t ‘magnet’; health care; migration; right to reside; social security;
Unite d Kingdo m
Restrictions to migrants’ entitlement to welfare bene ts have been pursued by the
United Kingdom (UK) governments throug hout the past two decades.  ey intensi ed
under the Coalition government (2010–15), which sought to ‘protect the integrity of
the UK bene ts system and discourage bene t tourism’1, although its reforms were
also consistent with the general policy aim of reducing public expenditure. Recently
* Neville Harris is Professor of Law, University of Manchester. Address: Williamson Building 4.18,
School of Law, University of Ma nchester, Manchester M13 9PL, UK ; phone: +44 161 2753594, email:
neville. harris@ma He is a lso a Visiting Profe ssor of Welfare Law at Gothenbu rg
University. He is very gr ateful to the two rev iewers for their comments on t he dra of the a rticle.
1 D  W  P  (DWP) (2014 a: para 4.5).
Demagnetis ation of Social Secu rity and Health Ca re for Migrants to the U K
European Jour nal of Social Sec urity, Volume 18 (2016), No. 2 131
they were central to the negotiations between the UK and other Member States over
the terms of the UK’s EUmembership.  ere has also been an attempt to discourage
entry to the UK for the pur pose of receiving medical treatment. Reduced support for
migrants can be perceived to represent a further shi , in the UK context, towards a
national integration model.  is rests on the idea that those migrating to a di erent
state must become socially a nd economically established withi n it in order to make a
legitimate claim on its publ ic resources.  is can be contrasted w ith a residence model,
which connotes rights hing ing on location alone – and thus the idea, i n the EUcontext,
that lawful re sidence in a state to which there is freedom of movement is su cient.2
Social security and health care are the two largest areas of public expenditure in
the UK. Mil lions of citizens depend on welfare bene ts or the National Health Service
(NHS). Around half of the UK populat ion will, at any one point in time, be in receipt
of at least one welfare bene t;3 and it has been calcu lated that, in England, with in any
36 hour period, there are one mil lion people receiving care from the NHS.4 Medic al
and welfare provision are areas of state activity that continue to represent the most
substantial pil lars of the post-Beveridge welfare state in t he UK, delivering public
bene ts availa ble as of rig ht, albei t – partic ularly i n the cas e of socia l securit y bene ts
– on a conditional basis. A broadly universalist vision of social protect ion for all on
the basis of need has long predominated and continues to do so, notwithstanding
a growing policy emphasis on rest rictive targeting a nd public costs containment,
manifesting itself in cutbacks that appear almost inconsistent with the institutional
model of a welfare system.5
It is probably still true to say, as Bradshaw argued some twenty years a go, that the
UK’s welfare state is a ‘robust institution,  r mly embedded in the social and cult ural
life of the country’.6 However, there is an apparent ambivalence in public attitudes
towards it. Preservation of t he NHS has huge public support. In a recent survey, almost
90 per cent of adults favoured or strongly favoured conti nued government support
for the NHS as ‘a national health system that is tax f unded, free at the point of use,
and providing comprehensive health c are for all citizens’.7 Not surprisingly, therefore,
all the major politica l parties have recently expressed a commitment to maintain
or increase NHS expenditure. Public spending on the NHS has been protected over
the past  ve years.  at is not, however, true of social security expenditure; indeed,
there have been signi cant cutbacks and a ‘ bene t cap’ has been introduced setting
2 T (2015).
3 W  et al (2010: 4).
4 NHS website inform ation, available at w NHSEngland/t henhs/about/Pages/over view.
5 For discussion of t he di erent models of wel fare system and where the U K sits in relation to them,
see H et al (2000: ch.1). For some examples of recent cutbac ks to provision in the U K, see
H (2014).
6 B (1993: 45).
7 G et al (2015: 11). See al so IPSOS-MORI (2006: 6).
Neville Ha rris
132 Intersentia
a maximum limit on a citizen’s overall entitlement from the welfare system.8 Such
restrictions seem to have attracted popular approval. ere is evidence that popular
attitudes are ‘generally mov ing in line with t he current direction of government
pol ic y…  ere is les s enthusiasm about public spending on all ty pes of bene ts and an
increasing belief that t he welfare system encourages dependence’.9 e Conservative
Government elected in May 2015 plans, by 2017–18, to make cuts of £12bn in annual
welfare spending,10 which cu rrently stands at nearly £200 bn.11
e in uence of popular opinion on the direction of public policy can be seen
in the shaping of the welfare rights of migrants and v isitors to the UK. Popular
concern about high imm igration levels – the levels are among the highes t, per head of
population, w ithin the EU12 – have had a marked in uence, re inforce d by sugge stions
that the availa bility of ‘generous’ bene ts in the U K has been a factor.13 For ex ample,
further t ime limits on migrants’ bene ts, announced in July 2014, were ‘addressing
the magnetic pull of Brita in’s bene ts system’.14 According to opinion poll data,
nearly two-thirds of UK citizens believe migrants receive an unfair share of welfare
bene ts.15 So me o f th e na tion al med ia h ave rei nfo rced th is v ie w.16 ere has developed
a kind of policy bli nd ness to the true picture – that the objective evidence of welfare
‘magnetism’ is not at all strong, especially where ski lled persons are concerned.17
Indeed, the UK Government has qu ietly acknowledged the absence of proof: ‘None
of the evidence we received was able to point to speci c research or analysis on the
importance of access to so cial security bene ts in t he decision to migrate’.18
8 e bene t cap has survived an i mportant legal cha llenge before the UK Supreme Cou rt: R (SG and
others) v Secretar y of State for Work and Pensions [2015] UKSC 16.
9 P  et al (201 2: 17).
10 See the Budget spe ech by George Osborne MP, Chanc ellor of the Exchequer, 18 March 2015,
available at ww orge-osbornes-budget-2015-speech.
Mr Osborne subsequ ently set out some of the measu res to achieve thi s  gu re in his Summer Budget:
details ava ilable at /topical-events/budge t-july-2015.
11 Made up of £168.1bn in bene ts administered by the D epartment for Work and Pensions (or
nearly £175bn, if operating co sts are included) and nea rly £30bn in tax cre dits and child bene t
administ ered by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs: Nat ional Audit O ce (NAO) (2015a :, 4 and
Annex,  g.3), available at–15-
accounts/; NAO (2015b: 4), available at ww
12 Based on Eurostat, Mi gration and migrant popul ation statistics, (E C , 2015),
available onl ine at /statistics-ex plained/index.php/M igration_a nd_
migrant_ population_st atistics ( g ures for May 2014) and F (2015).
13 M A C  (2014: para 3.79).
14 C (2014), available at ww /news/uknews/imm igration/10995875/David-
Cameron-Were-building-an-im migration-sys tem-that-puts-Britain- rst.html.
15 Cited in HM G  (2014a: paras 2.62).
16 See, e.g., the m ain article on t he front page of a leading nation al newspaper: C   C
17 M A C  (2014: paras 3.79–3.82); J et al (2013: 44–54).
18 HM G  (2014a: paras 2.55).

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