David Cameron’s proposal to strip benefits and tax credits from European migrants until they have been in the country for four years, contributing fully to our economy, is rational and reasonable. As the Office of Budget Responsibility has pointed out, this is not likely to make a scrap of difference to the level of immigration from Europe. However, the move is important for another reason. It undoes the ‘rights’ culture that ignores the obvious fact about social security, that it is not something that appears from thin air but is the result of a general agreement to make contributions in times of plenty so that one can benefit when times are lean.
At the moment Cameron’s suggestion is coming under fire from the rest of the EU. The criticisms are entirely valid. It is certainly against the principle on which the EU is founded that we should treat fellow citizens from Europe differently from those who have resided here from birth. There are no grounds for doing so and it surprised me from the beginning that Cameron thought that such a move was likely to be agreed generally within the EU.
The answer to this conundrum is, however, pretty clear. A UK restriction on access to benefits and tax credits until one has contributed National Insurance for four years should be applied equally to all. So far as our own population is concerned, for those who proceed from school or training into the workforce, their position would be unaffected. But for those who have drifted through school, funded by the taxpayer from birth to at least the age of seventeen, it would be salutary thought that one had to work unsubsidised for a period of at least four years before getting a scrap of further benefit.
There would, of course, remain the thorny issue of those young ladies who see pregnancy, single parenthood and the subsidised life it involves as a comfortable career option. For them, the same principle should apply. My mother, an ex-teacher, is as hard bitten as one can get. ‘You can’t change attitudes overnight. But you can make them better, slowly,’ she said. ‘When girls enter the secondary school, I’d get all the mothers together and tell them: “Now what happens with your children is your responsibility. If they get pregnant, you pay for them.”‘ Of course it’s a shocking thought. How on earth could one imagine parents having to take responsibility for their own children? Whatever next?