Britain pays child benefit for more than 50,000 children living abroad
British taxpayers are funding child benefit payments for 37,900 children who live in Poland, Treasury figures show.
By Rebecca Lefort
Published: 10:00PM GMT 31 Oct 2009
The money is going to support children who have remained behind in their homeland while one or both of their parents lives and works in the UK. The cost is estimated at more than 20 million a year.
The number of claims has risen by 20 per cent in the past year, despite a slowing in the overall rate of immigration from eastern Europe.
The figures, released to Parliament, reveal the impact of European Union rules which allow migrant workers who pay taxes in their host country to claim benefits there, even if they have left their families behind.
The findings come as an ICM opinion poll for The Sunday Telegraph today shows that two thirds of voters 66 per cent believe that the number of immigrants currently in Britain is too high.
Poles make up the majority of 51,000 children, from more than 30,000 families, living outside the UK who are supported with child benefit payments from British taxpayers.
The payouts come despite assurances given by ministers, when the decision was taken to allow citizens of new EU member states including Poland to live and work freely in the UK, that new migrants would not immediately be eligible for most benefits.
Because British handouts are much higher than many other countries' payments particularly in eastern Europe, where the cost of living is lower the benefits appear huge to many migrants.
In some cases the overseas claimants receive the full UK rate of benefit 20 a week for the first child and 13.20 for others. In other cases, they receive benefit from their homeland's government plus a “top-up” payment from the UK government to raise the total to UK levels. In Poland, the equivalent of child benefit is around 5 a week or less.
The Treasury has refused to put a figure on the total cost of supporting youngsters abroad. Even if most of the Polish claimants are not getting the full rate from Britain, the total cost of the payouts to Polish families is estimated at more than 24 million a year.
Between March 2008 and October 2009 the number of children living in Poland but supported by British handouts jumped from 31,400 to 37,900.
Children supported in other countries include 2,500 in Slovakia, 2,300 in French and 1,800 in Ireland. Only 500 received the support in Germany, and only four in Iceland.
Philip Hammond, the Conservative Treasury spokesman, said: “With Britain facing a debt crisis and the Government's child poverty strategy in tatters, it beggars belief that Gordon Brown is continuing to send millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to children who don't even live in this country.
“It's yet more evidence that he is completely out of touch with the concerns of ordinary families struggling to make ends meet in these difficult times.”
Ania Heasley, who runs the Ania's Poland website, which helps Poles settle in Britain, said the payments were a big incentive to people considering moving to Britain to work.
“The typical scenario is that the father comes to the UK and works here, and if he is the main breadwinner or declares himself financially responsible then even if his child lives in Poland he can claim child benefit and will get the full amount,” she said.
“It is much much less in Poland, which is why they apply here.
“There was an outcry before about children who have never set foot in Britain getting these benefits and the reaction was that it couldn't be true, but it is true and thousands of people do it.
“They feel it is their right, they are taking advantage of the rules that are there. They are not doing anything illegal; this is there for the taking.
“Originally people were surprised and said 'This is great,' but now there is so much information in Poland about the benefits that they all know about it.
“In Poland the benefits are getting less and less, but the advice when coming over to Britain is that you can add that to your salary. They are so happy about the welfare system.”
If a worker from an EU country pays tax in Britain the UK takes responsibility for paying the full amount of child benefit to children they have left behind unless another parent is working and claiming in the home country. However, even if another country is paying some benefits, Britain must add extra if the child's native country's benefit rate is lower than the UK's.
A spokesman for HM Revenue and Customs said the payments to foreigners accounted for a only “tiny fraction” of the 7.5 million total child benefit payments.
He added: “The main purpose of child benefit is to support families living in the UK, and so the general rules for this benefit mean it is not paid to children who live outside the UK.
“However, under EU rules, which have been in place since the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community in 1973 and which are applied by all Member States, a European Economic Area national working and paying compulsory social security contributions in one EEA country can claim family benefits for their family resident in another EEA country.
“The purpose of these rules is to help guarantee rights of free movement for workers throughout the EEA.”
According to the ICM poll for this newspaper, despite the widespread view that there are too many immigrants in Britain, voters are deeply divided on what ought to be done. Asked which party had the best approach to approach immigration, 27 per cent backed the Tories, followed by Labour (18 per cent), the Liberal Democrats (16 per cent) and the British National Party (11 per cent).
However, when participants in the survey were asked about specific policies without being told which party backed which policy, a clear majority 54 per cent supported the Government's current regime of a points-based system to restrict numbers from outside the European Union.
This was comfortably ahead of the Conservatives' policy of setting an annual cap on immigrant numbers (28 per cent) as well as the BNP's demand for a total ban on immigration (15 per cent).
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