Migrant mothers and children have most to lose from UK benefit cuts

A clampdown on benefits paid to EU workers is having a disproportionate effect on low income families, according to research by Dr Charlotte O'Brien from York Law School

Some EU workers are forced into homelessness as a result of benefit cuts by the UK Government

The UK government’s clampdown on the limited benefits paid to the families of EU migrant workers is hurting mothers and their children most.

Some young mothers who are working are being reclassified as ‘non-workers’ to strip them of support, pushing them into destitution and homelessness. In extreme cases, welfare cuts are trapping them in abusive relationships, or forcing them into sex work to pay the bills.

These are just some of the shocking findings of new research by Dr Charlotte O’Brien of our Law School. She has been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Future Research Leaders grant to design and manage a major EU rights project exposing the plight of migrant workers in the UK.


Dr O'Brien outlined her welfare research findings in this presentation at YorkTalks 2016

Dr O’Brien’s two-year research project combines her extensive knowledge of EU legislation with practical work she carries out as a frontline adviser to the Citizens Advice Bureau.

She is gathering evidence on the effect of new UK welfare rules in practice. While these changes might appear on paper to be EU-compliant, Dr O’Brien’s study reveals a growing body of evidence which shows that the way the changes are being administered could be putting the UK authorities at risk of breaching their legal obligations.

The new measures include:

  • Changes to the definition of what constitutes migrant work and an increase to the minimum amount that migrant workers have to earn before they qualify for help
  • Limits on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA)
  • Introduction of a new ‘genuine prospects of work’ test for jobseekers
  • The withdrawal of Housing Benefit from jobseekers


Dr O’Brien said: “The evidence points to the government targeting low income EU migrants, and dehumanising EU national children in order to clear the way for stripping parents and children of any entitlement to social assistance, particularly child benefit and child tax credit.

“The changes have had an immediate and disproportionate effect on lone parent families with very young children,” she said.

Her work gathering case studies from around the country has revealed that the withdrawal of benefits they should have been entitled to means that in some cases, young mothers and children have faced homelessness if they leave an abusive household. There is evidence of women with no other recourse, struggling to pay rent without support while on a low income being pushed into sex work.

Dr O’Brien’s work is building a powerful case that the government clampdown is based on the mistaken belief that the EU migrants are what the tabloid press calls ‘benefit tourists.’ She provides evidence to show that the opposite is the case – EU migration is beneficial, indeed essential, for the future of the UK economy.

Net contributors

“EU migrant workers offer fiscal and cultural benefits to the UK – they are net contributors to the public purse – paying in more than they take out or use in public services,” says Dr O’Brien. “They also make up a large proportion of the workforce in some of our key public services including the health and social care sector – where demand is increasing as the population of the UK ages.”

But she says that despite the benefits, the research findings show that as a result of the cuts, EU national children are living in an ever more precarious state, and that many families are experiencing distressing circumstances.

“In spite of the human rights instruments the EU and UK claim to observe we are creating a vision of society that is doing harm to us all.”

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The changes have had an immediate and disproportionate effect on lone parent families with very young children”

Dr Charlotte O’Brien

Dr O'Brien's work is funded by an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Future Research Leaders grant

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Dr Charlotte O'Brien

Research areas include EU social law, UK public law and human rights law

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