LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Tuesday it was stepping up restrictions on foreign job seekers’ access to welfare payments as Prime Minister David Cameron strives to cut immigration ahead of a national election next year.
Polls show voters are concerned about immigration levels, a trend reflected in the rising popularity of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) which opposes “open door immigration” and has drawn support away from Cameron’s Conservatives.
UKIP is expected to come first or second in elections for the European Parliament next month, pushing the Conservatives into third place.
In response, Cameron has sought to appear tough on the issue by tightening visa rules for migrants from outside the European Union and by restricting access to welfare benefits for EU nationals.
Under rules announced on Tuesday, migrants from all countries who arrive in Britain to find work will have to wait for three months before being able to claim welfare payments for their children.
The announcement builds on a similar three-month waiting period for unemployment benefits, which was introduced earlier this year amid concerns that the lifting of restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers’ right to come to Britain could prompt a surge in immigration.
New welfare claimants will also no longer have automatic access to translation services, and those who do not speak English will face unspecified sanctions unless they improve their language skills.
“These changes send a strong message that our welfare system is not open to abuse and will deter those who think that they can move to the UK primarily to claim benefits,” said Nicky Morgan, a junior minister in Britain’s finance ministry.
In February, data showed that the net number of people moving to Britain in the year to September 2013 rose by 37 percent to 212,000, undermining Cameron’s aim to cut net migration to under 100,000 by 2015.
Cameron has made tighter restrictions on the movement of jobseekers within the EU one of his priorities for a planned renegotiation of Britain’s ties with the 28-nation bloc. He has promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017 if re-elected next year.
Whilst his wide-ranging renegotiation effort has won only limited backing among EU leaders, his campaign for tighter border controls has won some support from Germany, which is also looking at ways to defend its welfare system from potential abuse.
Editing by Andrew Osborn and Robin Pomeroy