March 25, 2013 12:00 am

Cameron makes migrant access to benefits harder

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David Cameron will step up his rhetoric about preventing Britain’s benefits system being a “soft touch” for immigrants as the prime minister seeks to head off the rising threat of the UK Independence party.

All three party leaders have rushed to express a harder line on border control after the anti-immigration Ukip this month beat the Conservatives for second place in the Eastleigh by-election.

Mr Cameron will use a keynote speech to emphasise policies that will make it harder for newcomers to access the welfare state, although many of these have already been announced.

The initiatives include cutting access to Jobseeker’s Allowance to non-nationals after six months from 2014 unless they can prove they have actively sought work.

There will be a tougher “habitual residence test” that people have to pass to claim income-related benefits.

The Tory leader will reannounce plans to end “health tourism” by people coming to the UK on the “expectation that our health service is free to the entire world”. That could mean a requirement for non-European Economic Area migrants to need private health insurance to access NHS care.

But plans for a “crackdown” on foreigners getting council housing will fall far short of weekend reports suggesting a “residency test” would be forced on all local authorities.

Instead, the government will merely introduce an “expectation” on councils to introduce a test for who should qualify for social housing, which could restrict it to those who have lived somewhere for “say, two or five years”.

Similar exhortations were made by Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2009, and about half of all councils already have a local residency test.

But experts point out that local authorities cannot distinguish between different types of outsiders. “You can’t give the home to someone who has left Leeds to work in London over someone from eastern Europe,” said one expert.

Mike Jones, chair of the housing board for the Local Government Association, said there was no need to attempt a “one-size-fits-all” approach on councils and urged ministers to focus instead on the lack of supply of new houses.

Boris Johnson, the Tory mayor of London, said on Sunday that he backed the government stopping people coming to Britain who “want to leech off the system” – so long as it did not prevent the arrival of top talent from overseas.

Ukip’s success in Eastleigh has focused the minds of Westminster politicians, with Ed Miliband last month unveiling a “new approach” to immigration.

The Labour leader outlined measures including tougher enforcement of the minimum wage and tighter controls on employment agencies.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, last week pre-empted Mr Cameron’s speech by pledging he would scrap his party’s suggested amnesty on illegal migrants, which was part of the 2010 manifesto.

The Liberal Democrat leader also announced government plans to impose £20,000 fines on employers hiring illegal workers, and revealed that the government is considering asking some migrants to pay a “security bond” on entering the country to prevent them overstaying their visas.

However, this tougher stance was undermined by fellow Lib Dem and business secretary Vince Cable, who derided the Tories’ net migration target as being “unattainable” and economically damaging.

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