British PM Cameron restricts welfare rights for migrants

LONDON (AFP) - Prime Minister David Cameron announced a fresh clampdown on immigration to Britain on Monday with plans to restrict migrants' rights to unemployment, health and housing benefits.

Mr Cameron acknowledged the contribution made by generations of hard-working immigrants, but warned that 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 that 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 marks the next step in a drive by Mr 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 is also widely seen as an attempt to fend off a rising challenge from the anti-immigration UK Independence Party, which pushed the Conservatives into third place in a recent by-election.

The issue of 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.

Migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) - EU countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway - are entitled to £71 (S$135) a week in unemployment benefits while they look for work.

But Mr 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 that their English is good enough.

Mr 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 Mr Cameron's office put at around £10-20 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 social housing at the expensive of British citizens.

Mr Cameron said one in ten new social lettings go to foreign nationals, but said new guidance introduced in the coming weeks would restrict housing assistance to migrants who have lived in Britain for two years.

"You put into Britain, you don't just take out," the premier said.

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