IAIN Duncan Smith has vowed to fight the European Commission “every step of the way” after it demanded the easing of restrictions on immigrants’ access to benefits.
The commission has referred the UK to the European Court of Justice over a right-to-reside test imposed on nationals from member states.
The check is said to be discriminatory because it goes beyond the standard eligibility criteria for welfare payments.
But the Work and Pensions Secretary said: “People in this country expect me to protect the benefits system from abuse and protect the money of hardworking taxpayers.
“So I will not stand by while the European Commission tries to water down the valuable protections we’ve put in place. I will fight this every step of the way, I will not cave in and I will continue to work on strengthening our benefit system in the meantime to ensure it is not open to abuse by anyone.”
In a statement, the European Commission (EC) said: “UK nationals have a right to reside in the UK solely on the basis of their UK citizenship, whereas other EU nationals have to meet additional conditions in order to pass this right-to-reside test.
“This means the UK discriminates unfairly against nationals from other member states. This contravenes EU rules on the coordination of social security systems which outlaw direct and indirect discrimination in the field of access to social security benefits.”
Mr Duncan Smith accused the EC of a “blatant land grab” against national governments.
“What is going on at the moment – this is the key to it – is that the commission is trying to use the freedom of movement as a way in to start controlling what national governments do about those who are not in work in their countries,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.
“We are very keen that people can travel Europe and they can seek work. What we are not keen [on] is that we have a system here that allows them to select the better benefits system that they can come and use.”
Mr Duncan Smith dismissed “gauche” claims from Ukip leader Nigel Farage that the UK would not be able to resist the commission’s demands, and added: “I have talked to the Germans and the Austrians and others and they all agree with me that this is outwith the treaties.”
Mr Farage described Mr Duncan Smith’s promise not to cave in as “a very bold assertion that he is making in vain”.
News of the EC’s move drew a sharp response from Eurosceptics, including Tory back-benchers who have been urging Prime Minister David Cameron to take a tougher line with Brussels.
Labour, which introduced the right-to-reside test, backed the government’s stance.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The UK courts have consistently upheld the UK’s stringent checks to prevent abuse in the benefits system for many years as in compliance with EU law.
“Most people who come to Britain work and contribute. But it is right that we should have checks in place to make sure people contribute or show commitment to this country before they benefit.
“Indeed, Labour has called on the government to strengthen the residence test, not weaken it, to make it clear that people should live here for some time before they are eligible for things like Jobseeker’s Allowance.
“The EU commission are wrong to try to prevent member states having sensible checks like this as it will increase public concerns about migration and give member states an incentive to cut employment support for everyone, which is against everyone’s interests in Britain and across Europe.”