Restrictions on health and welfare benefits for immigrants from European Union states would have to apply equally to UK citizens under EU law, says Downing Street.
Reports over the weekend suggested that changes could be rushed in before Bulgarian and Romanian citizens gain full rights to move to the UK at the end of the year, amid public concern about so-called “welfare tourism”.
Ministers were said to be considering making immigrants wait for up to a year after settling in the UK before being able to seek hospital care including operations, though it is understood that emergency and ante-natal treatment would be excluded from the clampdown.
The proposed changes could form part of a drive to restrict immigrants’ access to benefits, council homes and public services.
But it is understood that any restrictions would have to be based on residency, rather than nationality, in order to comply with EU laws – meaning that British nationals might also be required to prove their entitlement.
The issue follows David Cameron’s assurances that the party will not “lurch to the right” in response to a poor electoral result in Eastleigh but these were swiftly undermined by cabinet colleagues projecting hardline stances on immigration, Europe and human rights.
Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling and Theresa May, the home secretary, are thought to be taking measures to ensure a future Tory government would follow a tougher line on human rights. Mr Grayling has even said the UK should scrap the Human Rights Act.
In a further twist Downing Street dismissed a call from Defence Secretary Philip Hammond for welfare to bear a greater share of austerity pain.
Today the prime minister’s spokesman said: “We have to operate within the law, including EU single market law. It is my understanding that one can’t discriminate between EU nationalities within that law.”
However, the spokesman poured cold water on suggestions that people might be required to show “entitlement cards” to prove their right to treatment or benefits, saying that the PM’s opposition to ID cards remained “unchanged”.
The spokesman said that a cabinet sub-committee, chaired by the prime minister, had met “several” times to discuss the issue of migrants’ access to benefits and that it was expected to come to a conclusion “in due course”.
“There is an ongoing process of discussion of a range of options,” the spokesman told a daily Westminster media briefing. “There is the usual process of considering options, but we are not at the announcement stage yet.”
Asked what evidence the government had that welfare tourism was a problem, the spokesman replied: “I think there is a widespread public concern around the pressures around some services, be it housing, local authority services or the NHS.
“There is a widespread sense of concern and that is what the government is considering how best to respond to.”