David Cameron’s demand for restrictions on EU citizens’ access to welfare will not apply to nationals from Ireland.
Philip Hammond has privately assured Ireland’s government that the hundreds of thousands of its nationals living in Britain would not be affected by any new conditions that may be introduced by the UK to restrict EU migrants’ access to the welfare system.
The foreign secretary discussed benefits restrictions with Ireland’s foreign minister Charles Flanagan on two occasions in the past year – in December and in June – providing explicit assurances, according to an Irish government document seen by the Guardian.
The subject was also discussed at a meeting between David Cameron and the taoiseach in June – and on that occasion the prime minister also provided a more informal assurance that Irish nationals would not be affected if the UK won the right to prevent migrants from accessing benefits.
Restricting benefits to migrants from the EU for the first four years after they arrive was one of the four demands made Cameron this week, as he set out the terms on which he wanted to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the other 27 countries in the union ahead of a referendum on the UK’s continuing membership.
However, Cameron has never made public that exceptions could apply for some countries. It is unclear whether Poland or any other country whose citizens would be affected by any UK benefit crackdown would agreed to a rule that would only apply to one member state – Ireland – but not to the 26 other countries.
There are 331,000 Irish nationals resident in the UK – the 3rd biggest group of overseas passport holders who live in the country. A proportion of those already claim benefits: the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says that 14,070 Irish nationals claim working age benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance.
A spokesperson for the Irish foreign office said: “We have raised the issue of how changes to UK welfare to restrict EU migrants could affect Irish nationals with our British counterparts and they are fully aware of our concerns.”
“Now that prime minister Cameron has clarified his proposals, we look forward to the negotiation process including in relation to the proposals around migration and welfare reform.”
The Foreign Office said that EU negotiations and discussions are ongoing, and that it would not comment on theoretical scenarios. However, the same spokesperson indicated that any residency-based test for withholding benefits would probably not apply to Irish jobseekers.
Britain and Ireland have a close relationship that long predates both countries accession to the European Union in 1973; the two countries are linked by the Common Travel Area, which allows for free travel between the countries in an agreement that dates back to Irish independence in 1922.
The DWP said that Irish nationals were traditionally treated differently: “The arrangements within the Common Travel Area mean that those living in the Irish Republic are deemed to be habitually resident in the UK.”
It is unclear if providing an exception for Irish nationals would fall foul of EU law. Anand Menon, professor of european politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, and director of UK in a Changing Europe, told the Guardian that “excluding Irish nationals from any in-work restrictions would be no more or less legal than excluding other EU nationals. The legal issues are the same.
“Although there is probably more flexibility to legislate around those out of work, the rights of those in work are absolute due to the fact that freedom of labour is enshrined in the treaties. So ultimately it would depend on the precise areas where the government plans to act.”
The latest available figures (for February 2015) have 14,070 Irish nationals claiming working age benefits, which places Ireland seventh behind Pakistan, Poland, Somalia, India, Bangladesh and Iran in the rankings of top-claimant nationalities.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) refused to say how many Irish nationals are on working and child tax credits.
Downing Street reduced the scope to provide a comment.