Restrictions on A8 nationals lift at last.

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By Ruth Grove White

Since Sunday 1st May 2011, nationals of Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the so-called A8 countries which joined the EU in 2004 – are no longer restricted in their access to labour markets and state support systems across the European Union. In the UK context, this means that restrictions on access to work, housing rights and social benefits for A8 nationals have ceased to operate. They effectively now enjoy the same rights as other European Union nationals living in the UK.

Under the 2004 Accession Agreement, the 15 pre-existing EU member states were permitted to introduce transitional restrictions on A8 nationals, relating to their right to work and access state support on their territories. The UK was one of just three states to open its labour markets to A8 nationals in 2004. Other states were more cautious, maintaining tight restrictions on A8 workers for fear of labour market disruption for the first few years at least. By April 2011, Germany and Austria were the only EU countries to remain closed to A8 migrant workers.

Although the UK has enabled A8 nationals to work here since 2004, it has maintained certain key restrictions on A8 migrant workers until this year. Workers from A8 countries needed to be registered under the government’s Worker Registration Scheme (WRS), unless they were self-employed, during their first 12 months in the UK. Access to income-related benefits such as income-based jobseekers allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit was dependent upon remaining compliant with the conditions of the WRS. As a result, A8 workers who were not registered on the WRS, or those who lost their employment during this initial period, could not access state support. Growing levels of destitution, including homelessness, among people from A8 countries who have fallen outside the net has been reported across the UK since 2004.

The 1st May change is significant for A8 nationals coming to the UK. A8 nationals are now no longer required to register under the WRS if they want to work here. Broadly speaking, if they lose their job, subject to various conditions they are still entitled to housing and welfare benefits. They should also be able to more widely access out of work benefits during their initial period in the UK, enjoying the same entitlements as other EU nationals.

It is now critical for those dispensing advice to A8 nationals in the UK are fully aware of these changes and the impact they may have on individuals. Some agencies, such as the Chartered Institute of Housing (CiH), have already updated the information available about how this change in the rules affects entitlements of their clients. MRN is also working in conjunction with the Advice on Individual Rights in Europe (AIRE) Centre, to provide trainings for frontline advisors on the new situation for A8 nationals. If you are interested in taking part in a training course or in organizing one in your area, please let us know by contacting Jan Brulc, MRN Communications Officer, at j.brulc@migrantsrights.org.uk.

More widely, many will be interested in the likely impact of this development on population growth, the welfare system and economic growth in the UK and in other EU member states. Predictions of an increase in A8 migrants seeking to access the UK’S welfare system, for example, have been particularly well-aired in the red-top press. However, there is no evidence to indicate that this will be the case, or that there will be any other ‘surge’ in migrants from these countries coming to the UK after this month.

Concerns are also directed towards a very different possibility – that the UK could find that it is increasingly a less attractive destination for A8 nationals and suffer from a decrease in numbers of people coming here to work. Since May this year, Germany and Austria have now opened their labour markets to A8 nationals. Recent research from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research tells us that, overall, the UK economy has benefited from having less competition for A8 workers from these countries up until now. Where, for example, Germany is estimated to have a ‘permanent scar’ on its output of between 0.1% and 0.5% as a result of closing its labour markets to A8 nationals, the UK is estimated to have gaining in terms of output by up to 0.5%. This indicates that benefits and losses of A8 movement have not been on a huge scale, but certainly point towards an economic contribution by A8 nationals overall.

Either way, significant movements of people from A8 countries, akin to the movements of 2004, are thought to be unlikely. A press release from the European Commission indicates that there is no reason to expect a substantial movement of A8 workers across the EU in the coming months. Most people who wanted to move elsewhere in the EU have already done so, although no doubt Germany and Austria can expect a minor increase in A8 nationals entering for employment.

Whatever they decide to do, nationals of A8 countries can at least, finally, be reassured that they will enjoy the same rights as other European nationals across the EU. It has been a long time – too long – coming.
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