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Cameron hails ruling on EU benefits

David Cameron has hailed a "commonsense" ruling by European judges restricting so-called "benefits tourism".

The Prime Minister said it demonstrated the right to go and work in other EU countries should not be "unqualified".

The European Court of Justice ruled that EU countries must be allowed to refuse to grant some benefits to "economically inactive union citizens who exercise their right to freedom of movement solely in order to obtain another member state's social assistance".

The case involved a Romanian woman and her son who were denied access to certain benefits under the German system.

She received German child benefit and social security payments but also applied for a subsistence allowance from the German social security system.

This allowance is non-contributory, but the German authorities denied her application on the basis that German law does not allow the payments to be made to EU citizens seeking employment in the country.

The court ruled that the woman should have had sufficient means of her own to reside in Germany as she was economically inactive. It added that domestic legislation can exclude EU nationals from benefits that are available to nationals of that country, if they do not have a right of residence under the directive.

On a visit to Rochester and Strood ahead of the by-election, Mr Cameron said: "It is significant and it is welcome.

"This is a commonsense ruling. It is a good step in the right direction because, as I have said, the right to go and work in other countries should not be an unqualified right.

"There should be rules about restricting benefits."

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said the Government would work with administrations across Europe to assess the judgment's wider implications.

He said: "This is an excellent ruling - and supports our view that people coming to the UK who don't have sufficient resources to support themselves and would become a unreasonable burden should not be able access national welfare systems.

"The case underlines what we have said for some time that free movement is not an unqualified right - and will have a major impact on the way the Commission interprets law in future.

"The fact Germany's decision was challenged in this way is yet more evidence that the EU needs a much clearer legal framework, clarifying the original Treaties, allowing member states to retain control over their own national welfare systems.

"We have been working closely with Germany on this case, and will now work with other European Governments on the wide implications of the judgment in the coming days and weeks."

Under EU rules the host member state is not obliged to grant social assistance during the first three months of residence.

Where the period of residence is between three months and five years - as it was in the German case - one of the conditions is that "economically inactive persons must have sufficient resources of their own".

According to a summary of the ruling produced by the ECJ "the directive thus seeks to prevent economically inactive Union citizens from using the host member state's welfare system to fund their means of subsistence".

"A member state must therefore have the possibility of refusing to grant social benefits to economically inactive union citizens who exercise their right to freedom of movement solely in order to obtain another member state's social assistance although they do not have sufficient resources to claim a right of residence; in this connection, each individual case must be examined without taking account of the social benefits claimed."

Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said: "Labour welcomes today's European Court of Justice ruling on restricting benefits to immigrants from EU member states who travel simply to claim benefits.

"Labour has repeatedly called on the Government to act to ensure that the UK benefit system is only there for those prepared to contribute, including extending the three-month waiting time EU migrants have to wait before claiming benefits and ending the unfair practice of child benefit being sent abroad."

Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder said: "Today's ruling shows that while EU free movement is non-negotiable, it is not an unfettered right."

Ukip's home affairs spokeswoman Diane James said: "The Government needs to examine this judgment closely, and if need be, look to alter the rules on habitual residence which gives EU migrants open access to many UK benefits even though some of them are in reality, are not seeking work.

"In order to stop abuse of the British benefit system we must radically change it because we are members of the EU and currently subject to its rules.

"In Germany, if EU migrants do not show sufficient means of support and are not truly seeking work, they are informed of return and resettlement programmes that are applicable to them.

"If EU migrants in the UK are not genuinely seeking work, and pose a large threat to the fairness of the British welfare system, then we must take action to prevent it from being abused."

Stephen Booth, research director at the Open Europe think tank, said the ruling could encourage the UK to seek further restrictions on access to state support.

"This ruling is helpful to the UK because it confirms that national governments can deny benefits to EU migrants who are not genuinely seeking work, and it therefore reinforces many of the changes to the UK rules which the Government has already made," he said.

"The Court has said that certain non-contributory benefits are outside the scope of EU rules which guarantee equal treatment and non-discrimination. The UK and other national governments can therefore use this precedent to defend their restrictions on EU migrants' access to non-contributory benefits."

"However, extending this principle and putting greater restrictions on to non-contributory in-work benefits, such as tax credits, the NHS and social housing, would require changes to EU legislation. This case could embolden UK allies to support such a move."

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