The number of EU citizens claiming benefits doubled in the pandemic, new figures show, amid fears many are living abroad while still receiving the money.
EU citizens with settled status remained eligible for millions of pounds of benefits and furlough through the Withdrawal Agreement, despite leaving the UK.
At least 100,000 quit to return to Europe, according to new analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), although some experts claim it could be many multiples of that because of problems with the way the data is collated.
Both the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) are unable to say how many of those that left have claimed benefits from abroad.
A senior government source said: “This is an issue we are worried about. There are 6.2 million EU nationals who have access to benefits, tax credits, furlough during the pandemic.
“This money can often be claimed by those who have returned home to another country, which may not be fair or sustainable in the long run. It’s something we are going to have to look at.”
EU citizens of working age were among the hardest hit by the pandemic because of the numbers working in hospitality and retail which were shut down in the lockdowns, according to migration experts.
Unemployment among EU citizens in the UK jumped from three per cent before the pandemic to six per cent last summer. The number claiming working-age benefits increased by 104 per cent from 380,000 in November 2019 to 780,000 in November 2020, according to DWP data.
This compared with a 34 per cent rise to 8.3 million for UK nationals. For both groups, it was the largest year-on-year increase since November 2013.
Claims from EU2 citizens – those from Romania and Bulgaria – more than trebled from 66,000 to 190,000, while those from EU8 citizens – who include Poles, Czechs and Hungarians – rose by 94 per cent from 160,000 to 300,000.
Madeleine Sumption, the director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “EU migrants were hit hardest in the pandemic because of their concentration in hospitality and retail which closed down for long periods. There’s a pretty substantial increase in out-of-work claims for EU citizens.”
The numbers were also artificially inflated by the Government’s move away from tax credits, which many Europeans claimed as most were working and its shift to DWP benefits with the rollout of Universal Credit.
Estimates for the size of the exodus of EU citizens, many of whom claimed pre-settled and settled status because of the time they have already spent in the UK, have varied sharply in the past year.
Some experts claimed it could be hundreds of thousands. This stems from the disparity between the numbers who applied for settled or pre-settled status based on their residency in the UK and ONS estimates of the actual number of EU citizens in the UK.
Home Office data showed 4.3 million working-age adults, aged 18 to 64, were granted status under the EU settlement scheme out of a total of 6.4 million, including children and pensioners.
ONS data, from the Labour Force Survey allied with HMRC data, estimates there are 2.8 million EU-born people of working age in the UK, a difference of 1.5 million. Some of these may have left after applying for settled status, while others could have applied purely as an “insurance” for the future.
New analysis by the ONS has attempted to pin down the figure and suggests there was a 107,000 fall in the EU-born population aged over 16 in the UK in 2020. The actual exodus will be higher because the figure does not include the number of EU citizens who moved to the UK in that time.
“What no one knows is the number who might have departed the UK to see out the pandemic in their home countries, and failed to tell HMRC or DWP that they have left,” said one independent expert with knowledge of the benefits system.
“This could have made payments abroad very much larger than the usual small percentage. The suspension of most in-person interactions at job centres during lockdowns will have made this possible and equally made it very difficult for the departments to make any estimate of how many might have done so.”
Neither the HMRC, DWP, Home Office nor ONS were able to provide any data for the number claiming while abroad.
An HMRC source said: “While we record the addresses of furlough claims, these wouldn’t necessarily reflect if someone travelled after the claim. We don’t track in our published statistics whether someone is an EU national.”
A DWP source added: “There are not published statistics on benefits paid in the EU to people with pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.”
DWP-income related benefits, such as Universal Credit, and legacy benefits, such as Income-related Jobseeker’s Allowance, are not exportable and can be claimed only by people living in the UK.
However, EU citizens with settled status are covered by the Withdrawal Agreement, which means they can receive other benefits in the EU as long as they meet all the eligibility requirements.
These include Contributions-based Jobseekers Allowance (for up to three months), Employment Support Allowance, the Personal Independence Payment, Disability Living Allowance, Attendance Allowance, Carers Allowance and the Winter Fuel Payment.
Others include bereavement payments, industrial injuries benefits, maternity allowance, maternity, paternity and sick pay.
Alp Mehmet, the chairman of Migration Watch UK, said: “It will strike those who pay into the system as absolutely ridiculous that people are able to claim for welfare, or benefit from furlough, from abroad. This is the kind of thing that people voted to take back control to end.”
A government spokesman said: “We toughened the benefit rules when we left the EU. But reflecting the contribution EU citizens made in the UK, a limited number of UK benefits can, in certain circumstances, continue to be paid in the EU.
“This is reciprocal and does not include Universal Credit, which has only ever been payable to those in the UK.”