LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday announced a fresh clampdown on immigration to Britain with plans to restrict migrants’ rights to unemployment, health and housing benefits.
Cameron acknowledged the contribution made by generations of immigrants, but warned Britain had for too long been regarded as a “soft touch.”
Under the plans, migrants will have their unemployment benefits stopped after six months if they have no prospect of finding work and non-Europeans may face charges for health care.
The prime minister warned entitlement to public services was “something migrants earn, not an automatic right”, adding: “We want people who are interested in what they can offer to Britain.”
The speech marked the next step in a drive by Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government to bring net migration down from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands of people per year. But it was also an attempt to fend off a rising challenge from the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, which pushed the Conservatives into third place in a recent by-election.
Immigration has shot up the political agenda as Britain braces for a fresh influx of Eastern Europeans after the European Union lifts work restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians in 2014.
Cameron insisted that public concern would not go away until immigration was brought under control. “If you get this balance right . . . it will fall away as a political issue,” he said.
Migrants from the European Economic Area — EU countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway — are entitled to £71 a week (about $110) in unemployment benefits while they look for work. But Cameron said the message this sent to new arrivals was “all wrong,” insisting there must be an end to the “something for nothing culture.”
Under his proposals, unemployment payments will stop after six months unless migrants can prove they have a realistic chance of finding a job, including a requirement that their English is good enough.
Cameron also targeted so-called health tourists who abused Britain’s free-to-access NHS, insisting it was a “free National Health Service, not a free International Health Service.”
The government would work harder to claim back money spent on treating migrants from inside the EEA from their home countries, which Cameron’s office put at around £10 million to £20 million a year. For those outside the EEA, ministers will look at introducing tougher charges for treatment and a requirement to have private health insurance before receiving NHS care.
The prime minister also addressed a common feature of anti-immigration rhetoric, that migrants were given public housing at the expense of British citizens. Cameron said 1 in 10 new public housing units go to foreign nationals, but said new guidance introduced in the coming weeks would restrict housing assistance to foreigners who have lived in Britain for two years.
The approach was all about “making sure that the people who come here, wherever they come from, are coming here for the right reasons,” he said.
However, the opposition Labour Party questioned how many of Cameron’s proposals were new, noting that guidance for job centers already suggest cutting EEA migrants’ benefits after six months if they are not genuinely seeking work.
Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research think tank, also queried how much impact immigrants really had on Britain’s huge welfare bills.
All the evidence pointed to EU migrants paying in “far more than they take out,” he told the BBC, noting that the impact of health tourism was “minuscule” when compared to the long-term cost of an aging population.
The proposals form part of a wider clampdown that Cameron said had cut net migration by one-third since May 2010.
The other British political parties have also ramped up their rhetoric against immigration in recent weeks, in response to UKIP’s by-election success last month, which experts say was in large part due to their campaign to shut Britain’s borders.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat junior coalition partners, last week dropped his party’s long-term proposals for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, while Labour leader Ed Miliband has also called for tougher measures.