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Nick Clegg will on Wednesday chair a home affairs cabinet committee to examine wide-ranging plans to deter EU migrants, including Romanians and Bulgarians, from coming to Britain by slashing access across the spectrum of benefits without breaching EU discrimination laws. The drive has been given an added urgency by the Ukip surge in the Eastleigh byelection.
Labour’s Frank Field, one of the MPs pressing for a crackdown, claimed Eastleigh had produced a change of heart, but ministers argue there is still a thicket of EU regulations on free movement of workers that they have been studying since the autumn.
A large cabinet subcommittee on migrants’ access to benefits, chaired by the immigration minister, Mark Harper, has met six times to look at options ranging across access to housing, welfare and health services and the possibility of introducing a form of entitlement card for all EU citizens.
Ministers are tussling with the impact of a series of judgments at the European court of justice defending the free movement of workers within the EU, so making any hasty move will be difficult.
They have been looking at a huge range of possibilities department by department, but the prime minister’s spokesman stressed that the government was still at the stage of examining options.
Kenneth Clarke, the former justice secretary, urged his party not to lurch to the right following the Eastleigh result last week, saying it would be folly to try to match Ukip: “If you imitate Ukip you make then more prominent and then you drive more moderate people to stick with the Liberal Democrats. I cannot think of a more certain way to lose the general election than to go for a lurch to the right.”
He insisted he had seen no government papers suggesting some of the restrictions on benefits canvassed in the media, and said they would never be adopted by the Conservative party.
Apart from the political urgency caused by Ukip’s success, Britain needs to make a decision before controls on Romanians and Bulgarians are lifted at the end of the year.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is looking at restricting access to health services via a tighter habitual residency test.
Hunt has been looking at whether non-EU nationals would be required to carry health insurance, although in practice the NHS can charge overseas visitors not normally resident in the UK. Moreover, UK nationals can apply for a European health insurance card to get state healthcare at a reduced cost within the EU.
The Home Office is looking to see if it would be legal to charge EU citizens who live in the UK for three months or more to purchase an entitlement card or ID card. Possession of the card would act as proof to jobcentre staff, GPs and housing officers that the owner is entitled to UK benefits.
Harper is already introducing an ID regime to test whether, for example, foreign students “are really here for that purpose [study] and not coming here just to claim benefits”.
Britain could extend that to all EU nationals, a move already being pioneered in the Netherlands. Philip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering, who claimed the Spanish already “interpret the free movement directive much more robustly”.
Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, is examining whether someone could only be deemed “habitually resident”, and so entitled to social security benefits, if they have been in the UK for a year, instead of the current three months.
Duncan Smith is also seeking EU allies to fend off European commission legal proceedings claiming that Britain has introduced an additional right to reside test that indirectly discriminates against EU citizens.
The EU ruled in 2011 that the right to reside test is discriminatory since EU nationals have their cases heard on a case by case basis while UK nationals only have to prove they are UK citizens.
The commission argues that the EU-wide “habitual residence” rules are a sufficient safeguard against “benefit tourism”.
Duncan Smith said he was still seeking allies in Europe to defeat the commission, describing the dispute as a big battle.
The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, is also looking at reducing access to legal aid for migrants, although in practice cuts to the legal aid budget have already reduced access. Cameron last week told the Daily Express: “We can no longer grant legal aid to non-UK nationals or for civil cases, people who are facing housing cases or benefit cases.”
The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, is looking to see if councils should be required to do more to restrict social housing to those with a long local connection. He said: “It does seem to me to be immensely sensible to ensure that if you work in an area or you’ve got a big connection – you might have been educated there or your family might be nearby – to receive some kind of priority in social housing.”
Some councils, such as Westminster, require a 10-year proven local connection for a resident to be given extra points on the housing waiting list, but in reality many access social housing through homelessness routes, or through their children, so making the local connection route less relevant. EU citizens cannot be discriminated against.
Field claimed the threat of mass migration from Romania and Bulgaria gave the government the opportunity to change the nature of the welfare state. “Similarly it’s a chance for Labour to decide about whether or not they want to see a welfare state which is based on contributions that can be built up by their own efforts, by their own residency, or whether in fact you continue as we have in the past since 1979 of just giving welfare out if you can prove need.”