U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to curb access to welfare, housing and free health care for non-Britons, as political parties jostle to persuade voters they understand concerns over mass immigration.
Cameron set out measures today to restrict the rights of foreigners to claim unemployment benefits after six months. He said local governments will be expected to make at least two years’ local residence a requirement for qualifying for social housing, and the state-run National Health Service will be stricter about charging to treat foreigners who are in the U.K. temporarily.
With Britain’s economy stagnating, politicians of all stripes have been seeking to assuage voter concerns about immigration’s possible effects on the labor market, public services and housing. Cameron’s Conservative Party came third in a House of Commons special election in Eastleigh last month behind the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party. The premier says he wants to cut net annual immigration below 100,000.
“I have always understood the genuine concerns of hard working people, including many in our migrant communities, who worry about uncontrolled immigration,” Cameron said in a speech in Ipswich, eastern England. “The pressure it puts on public services, the rapid pace of change in some of our communities, and of course the concerns, deeply held, that some people might be able to come and take advantage of our generosity without making a proper contribution.”
As part of the measures the premier announced today, citizens of other European Union countries and some other western European nations will only be able to claim six months’ unemployment benefit from next year unless they can show they have a genuine chance of finding work. Temporary migrants from outside those countries may need private health insurance to qualify for NHS treatment.
“Ending the something-for-nothing culture needs to apply to immigration as well as welfare,” Cameron said. “We should be clear that what we have is a free National Health Service, not a free International Health Service.”
The opposition Labour Party called earlier this month for greater restrictions on benefit payments to European immigrants. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who leads Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, said last week that “high-risk” immigrants from outside the EU should be required to post a bond to ensure they abide by their visa conditions.
“What we can do is make sure that those who come here from the EU -- or further afield -- do so for the right reasons,” Cameron said. “That they come here because they want to contribute to our country, not because they are drawn by the attractiveness of our benefits system or by the opportunity to use our public services.”
Restrictions on nationals from Bulgaria and Romania -- the most recent EU members -- working in Britain will be lifted next year. Labour has attacked Cameron’s government for failing to release estimates of how many migrants will arrive. Far more people from the eight Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 arrived in Britain than the-then Labour government forecast.
The number of Romanians and Bulgarians moving to Britain may hit 50,000 a year following the relaxation of controls, Migrationwatch, a pressure group, said in January. Cameron said net migration to Britain totaled more than 2.2 million people between 1997 and 2009, more than twice the population of Birmingham, the second-biggest city.
“You can’t control immigration if you have a welfare system that takes no account of who it is paying out to,” Cameron said. “You can’t control immigration if you have a health-care system that takes no account of the people using it. And you can’t control immigration if you have a housing policy that doesn’t take account of how long people have lived and contributed to a local area.”
The prime minister also announced measures to clamp down on illegal immigration. The maximum penalty for businesses that employ illegal workers will be doubled to 20,000 pounds ($30,000), and there will be a legal requirement for landlords to check the migration status of new tenants. He said the government is legislating to ensure illegal immigrants can’t get driver’s licenses and is working with the finance industry to stop them getting credit cards and loans and opening bank accounts.
“Frankly right now, it’s too easy to be an illegal migrant in Britain,” Cameron said.
The U.K. Border Agency had a backlog of 312,726 immigration cases in the three-month period ending in September 2012, according to a report published today by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.
“Successive UKBA chief executives have presided over chaos including 150 boxes of unopened mail, 100,000 unopened letters and yet another effective amnesty for thousands due to calamitous inefficiency,” the committee chairman, Labour lawmaker Keith Vaz, said in an e-mailed statement. “At this rate it will take 24 years to clear the backlog, which still stands at the size of the population of Iceland.”
There may be as many as 618,000 illegal immigrants in the U.K., the panel said, citing research by the London School of Economics.