Romania says British ministers have agreed secret deal to ensure migrants receive benefits despite coalition claims of a crackdown
British ministers have promised benefits for Romanian migrants will be protected, it has emerged as the row over who receives state handouts intensifies.
The UK government is understood to be drawing up emergency plans to curb the benefits which can be claimed by new arrivals.
Healthcare, housing and child benefit could be limited to only those people who have lived in Britain for more than a year.
Ministers want to get to grips with the issue before the expected influx of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians next year once EU restrictions are lifted
But Romanian foreign minister Titus Corlatean claims to have ‘received official assurances from the British Government’ that EU rules on benefits would not be changed.
‘We don’t speak about the Romanians as migrants, they are European citizens, we are European citizens, we are members of the European Union so we have our legitimate rights according to the EU treaties,’ he told Sky News.
However, a special Cabinet committee of senior minister are looking at ways to limit the impact on the taxpayer of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians arriving next year once EU restrictions are lifted.
However, it means Britons could have to carry an ‘entitlement card’ to access free NHS care as part of a crackdown on health tourists.
Reforms under discussion could mean immigrants having to wait six months or even a year before being granted habitual residency and therefore hospital care.
Tory MP Stewart Jackson urged minister to ‘take a chance’ and limit access to benefits for immigrants because a European Court ruling on the legaility of such a move would take years.
‘We’ve got to be robust, as they are in Spain, they are using the free movement directive to the nth degree,’ he told BBC2’s Daily Politics.
‘We have to do that to protect the access to public services and our employment market.
It’s important to recognise that the free movement directive is not a tablet of stone, its quite a flexible document, and ministers should have been looking at this issue months, not years ago.’
Local residents could also jump the queue for council housing under a plan to give preferential treatment to people with strong ties to local areas.
Today Downing Street said the idea is one of a ‘range of options’ being considered to limit access to benefits.
The Prime Minister’s Official spokesman said: ‘There is an ongoing process of considering a range of options by the Cabinet sub committee, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of it recently. It is looking at a number of ideas.
‘We are not at the announcements stage. We have to operate within the law, including the the EU single market law and yes it’s my understanding that one can’t discriminate between EU nationals under that law.’
He added that the moves by the government were designed to address growing public unease about the prospect of thousands of new migrants arriving in the UK.
‘There’s a widespread public concern around pressures around some services both in housing services and the NHS there’s a widespread sense of concern,’ the spokesman added.
A cross-government committee chaired by Tory immigration minister Mark Harper is examining a raft of ideas about how the curbs could be introduced, although details remain vague.
Other members include health, justice, treasury, housing, schools, transport and foreign ministers.
Any plan to limit healthcare to those who can prove they are entitled to free care would involve them presenting a card at the point of treatment.
However, the idea could spark civil liberty concerns akin to the opposition to Labour’s plans to impose an identity card.
And any plans to change the habitual residency test could be controversial.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Alarm bells should be ringing. The concern must be that the Government is set to limit benefits and access to the NHS under the cover of Romanians and Bulgarians gaining the right to work here.
‘The Government must spell out its plans in full detail and come clean on which people living in the UK will lose out. Ministers must also clarify whether those, such as UK pensioners who have moved to Spain, will see their eligibility to health treatment affected too.’
The European Commission is already unhappy that the UK has imposed such a test to prevent immigrants gaining access to all benefits and would be likely to oppose a plan to extend the test to entitlement to NHS care.
Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, and Nicholas Soames, Tory MP for Mid Sussex, who co-chairman a cross-party parliamentary group on balanced migration, have written a letter to Jeremy Hunt to outline their proposal. They told the Health Secretary to ‘get this situation dealt with very soon’ to avoid a public backlash.
The idea would be welcomed by many doctors who say they find it difficult to ask people whether they are entitled to NHS care for fear of appearing racist.
Conservative plans to clamp down on immigrants’ access to free healthcare will be seen as an another attempt by the party to steal a march on UKIP after their second place in last week’s Eastleigh by-election.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed they pushed the Tories into third because David Cameron was too busy talking about issues such as wind turbines and gay marriage rather than immigration.
Mr Cameron has confirmed previous reports that he is backing plans to clamp down on immigrants’ access to free healthcare. He wants to do this by changing the ‘habitual residency test’, which is used to refuse certain benefits to immigrants. At present, it gives full access to NHS care to anyone permanently resident in the UK.
In addition, hospitals will be compelled to enforce current rules which mean tourists and others who have no right to free care – including failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants – are charged for any services they receive on the NHS.
A source close to Mr Hunt said there was concern that the NHS was being exploited by ‘more and more’ people from overseas, putting a strain on services.
‘The National Health Service is becoming the global health service,’ the source said. ‘We are looking at the way in which services are open to people. You have to be ordinarily resident to access healthcare.
‘We have to have a look at that and whether there is a prospect of changing that. We are looking in a bit more detail at the contributions you need [to have paid] to be entitled to free healthcare.’
The habitual residence test is used to decide whether migrants from the EU and elsewhere are eligible for certain benefits.
Last month Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said he wanted to see the test extended to all handouts, so that no one can claim a benefit unless they can show they have rented a home here for at least a year.
Labour’s Chris Bryant, the shadow immigration minister, said: ‘This Government has spent the weekend flying more kites than Mary Poppins.
‘Managing immigration in a fair way is really important. Yet what we are getting from the Government is just an unseemly reaction to threats from their backbenches.’