A ban on EU migrants claiming out-of-work benefits from the moment they arrive in the UK will be rushed through parliament to deter people who want to “live off the state”.
The move was among a set of measures to restrict so-called benefit tourism announced in November by Prime Minister David Cameron, amid concerns about a predicted influx of Romanians and Bulgarians when they gain full rights to live and work in the UK at the start of 2014.
When the three-month delay was announced, Downing Street said it was unlikely to be in place in time for the arrival of the first migrants taking advantage of their new access rights on New Year’s Day.
But the restriction is now being brought forward to come into effect on the first day of 2014.
From that point, with a few exceptions, all migrants from other EU states will have to wait three months before claiming jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) of up to £71 a week.
After six months on JSA, only those who can provide compelling evidence that they have a genuine chance of finding work will be allowed to continue claiming the benefit.
Mr Cameron said: “The hard-working British public are rightly concerned that migrants do not come here to exploit our public services and our benefits system.
“As part of our long-term plan for the economy, we are taking direct action to fix the welfare and immigration systems so we end the something-for-nothing culture and deliver for people who play by the rules.
“Accelerating the start of these new restrictions will make the UK a less attractive place for EU migrants who want to come here and try to live off the state. I want to send the clear message that whilst Britain is very much open for business, we will not welcome people who don’t want to contribute.”
The latest employment figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK has quadrupled since the countries joined the EU in January 2007.
Citizens from the former communist countries gained the right to freedom of movement, but Britain imposed transitional controls on their freedom to work here.
Despite these restrictions, employment among immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria has increased faster than any other group tracked by the ONS.
At the beginning of 2007 there were 29,000 people from Romania and Bulgaria employed in Britain. The average quarterly figure in 2007 was 34,500.
The latest quarterly figures, which come as the seven-year transitional controls are about to lapse, show that there were 135,000 Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK between July and September 2013.
In the previous quarter the number hit a record high of 141,000.
The latest figures show that there 1,079,000 workers from all 27 EU countries employed in the UK in January 2007, compared to 1,627,000 in the latest quarter.
Employment among people from the A8 countries who joined the EU in 2004 - the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia - was 679,000 last quarter.
This is 80 per cent higher than the January 2007 total (378,000) but there has been little change in A8 employment since summer 2011.
The number of non-EU workers has also grown since 2007, but more slowly, from 2,275,000 to 2,753,000 people - an increase of 21 per cent.
Labour accused Mr Cameron of leaving the tabling of the necessary regulations until the last minute before parliament rises for its Christmas break on Thursday.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “Labour called for these benefit restrictions nine months ago. Yet David Cameron has left it until the very last minute to squeeze this change in.
“Why is the government leaving everything until the last minute and operating in such a chaotic way? Three weeks ago Theresa May told parliament she couldn’t restrict benefits in time, now the prime minister says they can.
“They wouldn’t be on the run from angry Conservative backbenchers if they’d listened to us nine months ago.
“Three days ago Theresa May hinted she was planning a cap on all EU countries. Then she was forced to admit it was only for new countries. A month ago they had a flagship immigration bill. Now it’s disappeared.
“They still haven’t taken action on the rest of Labour’s proposals to stop immigration being exploited to undercut wages and jobs for local workers.
“The government should urgently beef up enforcement against agencies which only recruit from abroad, dodgy gangmasters and targeting sectors that are reliant on migrant labour to ensure they are working to train employees.
She added: “We need urgent changes to minimum-wage enforcement to stop exploitation of European workers, which is bad for them, bad for local workers who are undercut and bad for responsible employers too.”
Other measures in Mr Cameron’s package include limiting welfare to six months for EU job seekers with no job prospects; stopping housing benefit claims for EU job seekers; toughening the “habitual residence” test for claimants; imposing a 12-month re-entry ban for people who have been removed for begging or sleeping rough; and increasing fines for businesses found not to be paying the national minimum wage.