Speak English or lose benefits: Cameron to stop payouts to immigrants who use taxpayer-funded translators
By Simon Walters and Martin Beckford
PUBLISHED: 16:59 EST, 18 January 2014 | UPDATED: 23:26 EST, 18 January 2014
David Cameron plans to strip welfare handouts from immigrants who cannot speak English.
In a radical bid to slash Britain’s benefits bill, the Prime Minister intends to stop printing welfare paperwork in foreign languages and prevent claimants using taxpayer-funded translators at benefits offices.
The move – which would also hit British residents who cannot speak English – was due to be announced tomorrow, but has been delayed following a row with Nick Clegg.
Tories hope that axeing foreign-language versions of documents explaining how to claim benefits would make it harder for immigrants such as newly arrived Romanians and Bulgarians to cash in on the UK’s benefits system, encourage others already here to learn English – and save money spent on translators.
Referring to the controversial Channel 4 programme, one Conservative aide said: ‘The Benefits Street culture must end. Period.’
The plans were been drawn up by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. One Tory insider said: ‘The vast majority of voters will think this idea is plain common sense. It is unreasonable to expect taxpayers to spend huge sums on translators when people should be learning to read and write English.’
Former Tory Cabinet Minister Liam Fox also gave the scheme the thumbs-up, saying: ‘The principle is a good one but it needs to be introduced in a way that’s fair and reasonable.
If it is, it will meet with general public approval. The ability to speak English is one of the most empowering tools in the labour market and we should be encouraging as many people as possible to learn it.’
The announcement of the changes was delayed after a behind-the-scenes dispute between the Coalition partners – just the latest in a series of clashes between Mr Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg.
But Tory sources say they are ‘optimistic’ the changes will be confirmed later this week if the Lib Dems can be won over.
One official involved in the plan said: ‘Cameron and Duncan Smith are very enthusiastic about it, but the Lib Dems had a wobble. They are nervous of being portrayed as being too harsh on immigrants.’
Labour’s Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons’ home affairs committee, also expressed reservations saying: ‘In principle, it is a good idea, but it could cost the taxpayer more because if people are refused benefit and have a genuine claim, they will sue the Government.’
At present the inability of claimants to speak or write English is no bar to them obtaining benefits. Translation services are available in all Jobcentres while local councils provide information leaflets in dozens of different languages.
Latest figures show the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spends £5 million on language services a year. The vast majority, £4.5 million, is spent on face-to-face and telephone help, with £415,000 more on ‘document translation’.
Scrapped: A multilingual form used by Tower Hamlets borough council
The DWP used interpreters 271,695 times in the space of one year to assist foreign claimants, statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act show. Most of the money is paid to The Big Word, Britain’s biggest language services firm, which received £3.5 million in public money during 2011.
Benefits offices deal with more than 140 languages, including Icelandic and Vietnamese as well as the more common Polish, Czech, Slovak, Urdu and Gujarati.
Town halls such as Tower Hamlets in East London publish guides on how to claim benefits in foreign languages which would be paid for separately to the DWP figures.
In most cases, a claimant at a Jobcentre would be put on the phone to an interpreter at a call centre to help them complete forms. The service receives up to 22,000 calls a month and is usually able to provide an interpreter within 60 seconds. There is also a service for face-to-face meetings, used 13,000 times a year.
Tories and Lib Dems have fallen out over several immigration and welfare issues. In October, Home Secretary Theresa May was forced to scrap sending vans with signs telling illegal immigrants to go home to areas with large ethnic populations.
The two parties are at odds over Mrs May’s plan to cut annual immigration from the EU to 75,000 a year. And they disagree over whether immigrants make the UK better or worse off.
Mr Clegg has denounced Chancellor George Osborne’s pledge to slash another £10 billion from the welfare budget. And the Lib Dem leader vetoed a move by Mr Cameron to scrap housing benefit for under 25s.
The latest proposed crackdown reflects the influence of Australian-born Tory election chief Lynton Crosby. Mr Crosby is said to have given orders that the party must produce ‘a new policy to curb immigrants and benefits’ every week.
Growing public pressure for a tougher approach to curb the UK’s ‘handout culture’, as highlighted on Channel 4’s Benefits Street series, is reflected in a policy switch Labour is set to announce this week.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves is expected to say that welfare handouts should be linked more closely to how much people have paid into the system.
It could lead to higher payments for most adults, but lower payments to under-25s.