The Government has slammed a landmark ruling which allows a Romanian mother selling the Big Issue on the streets of Bristol to claim housing benefits.
Immigrants like Firuta Vasile, 27, who sell the Big Issue are now able to claim up to £20,000 a year in housing benefits – after the ruling classed their work as a “proper job”.
Current government rules state that European nationals are not entitled to housing benefit unless they are in employment. But Bristol City Council refused the handout to Ms Vasile because her street job “didn’t count”.
So she enlisted legal experts to argue that she was technically self employed because she used her own money to buy Big Issues and sold them at her own profit or loss.
The mother-of-four yesterday welcomed the landmark judgement and said the extra cash – about £160 a week – would help her pay rent on her £130,000 three-bedroomed home.
Speaking through an interpreter, Ms Vasile said she came to the UK in 2007 to look for work, but could only find a post at the Big Issue in Bristol.
She said: “I can keep half of the money I take and I usually make around £100 per week. This isn’t enough to meet all my family’s needs so I asked the council for housing benefit to help with my rent. My claim was turned down.
“I was told that because I am Romanian I could not get benefits unless I have a job or I am in self-employment. They said work for The Big Issue didn’t count.
“I got legal support and was helped with an appeal. My adviser got lots of evidence that selling The Big Issue really is self-employment.
“I am really pleased if this decision means that people from countries like Romania and Bulgaria who come to the UK to work hard are not treated unfairly.”
But campaigners claim the legal ruling will “open the floodgates” for Eastern Europeans to “come and beg” in Britain, while racking up a huge bill for the taxpayer.
Under the ruling, Big Issue selling immigrants could claim up to £400 a week or £20,800 a year if they are living in a four-bedroomed house, depending on where and with whom they live.
Chris Grayling, Minister for Employment, said yesterday: “We disagree with the court’s decision. Maintaining the security and integrity of the benefit system is our top priority which is why we are trying to restore fairness to the benefits system and will be keeping the rules around the payment of benefits to people from abroad under review.
“We have to remain in line with our national and international obligations. However, it is absolutely necessary to protect the tax payer and the benefit system from possible abuse.
“This is another example of why we are working hard to secure changes to European benefit rules.”
Single mum Ms Vasile – whose children are aged 11, seven, six and two – began her case in January 2010 with a first tribunal heard in Bristol on June 6 last year.
The social security ‘first tier’ tribunal ruled that Ms Vasile should be paid benefits because selling the Big Issue counts as self-employment and she sold enough.
Bristol City Council appealed the decision and the case was taken to an upper tribunal in London last year.
Judge Mark Rowland released his written judgement – in favour of Ms Vasile – on January 10, with the council stating that they will not appeal again.
Andy King, of Avon and Bristol Law Centre, who helped her with her case said: “This is a great victory for people struggling to work to support their families. If people are willing and able to work, we need to encourage them to do so.
“Anyone who thinks selling The Big Issue on a British street in winter is a soft option should have a go themselves”.
But Sir Andrew Green, 70, chairman of think tank Migration Watch UK, slammed the judgement.
“This is an absurd decision which has potentially serious consequences,” he said. “It is an open invitation for beggars from Eastern Europe to come to Britain and claim housing benefit for them and their families at considerable expense to the British taxpayer.
“Yet again decisions are taken in complete disregard for the consequences for ordinary taxpayers.”
Stephen Robertson, chief executive of The Big Issue Foundation, said: “Big Issue vendors use their own money to buy their magazines and sell them at their own profit or loss.
“It is by no means an easy task. I am pleased that this ruling represents an important acceptance of the challenges and the opportunities that the magazine mechanism represents for people regardless of where they come from.”
A spokesman for Bristol City Council called for Government clarification on the issue of benefits for immigrants.
He added: “Bristol processes housing benefit claims on behalf of the Government according to the protocol laid down by the Government and recovers money paid out in claims locally on behalf of the city.”