04/03/2013 09:26 GMT | Updated 04/03/2013 10:29 GMT

Benefit Restrictions Would Apply To Britons As Well As Immigrants, Downing Street Admits

Any restrictions on health and welfare benefits for immigrants from European Union states would have to apply equally to UK citizens under EU law, Downing Street acknowledged today.

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.

"We have to operate within the law, including EU single market law," Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman said today.

"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."

Shadow cabinet minister Diane Abbott warned the Labour leadership at the weekend not to move to the right on immigration in order to stop Ukip eating into its vote share.

"I am very fearful that mainstream parties will take the wrong lessons from the rise of Ukip. I am worried for my own party, the Labour party, will take the wrong lessons," she said.

"For every party that considers itself progressive, moving to the right on immigration, at the current time is just a spiral downwards."