LONDON, England – “Benefit tourism” must end, Foreign Secretary William Hague has said, ahead of the lifting of work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians.
Mr Hague said that people should not be attracted to the UK just by the benefits available.
He said ministers wanted to remove “artificial, perverse incentives”.
He admitted the government had no “magic” figure about how many Romanians and Bulgarians might move to the UK when controls expire in 2014.
One immigration pressure group estimates 50,000 people will move to the UK every year, but the foreign secretary said any attempt to estimate the number would be “guesswork”.
The government has indicated it wants to tighten the requirements on who is able to claim benefits in the UK and is carrying out a review of access to health, housing and benefits for all migrants.
The Department of Health confirmed the government was “examining a wide range of options to revise entitlement to free NHS services”, after the Sunday Times reported ministers were considering making immigrants wait for up to a year before being able to seek non-emergency hospital care.
The review comes as the UK is preparing to lift temporary work restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants at the end of this year.
Mr Hague told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that although the government had no estimate about the number of migrants who might arrive from Romania and Bulgaria, it was working to end “benefit tourism”.
“I don’t think anybody can give you an accurate forecast, because a fundamental principle of the European Union is the free movement of people, and British people benefit enormously from that,” he said.
“So, yes we will have that, but we will also be careful to make sure that benefit tourism comes to an end.
“That has to be tackled so that people are not drawn to our country, or any country in particular, just by being attracted by the benefits.”
People from Romania and Bulgaria have been free to live in the UK and anywhere else in the EU since 2007, but in the UK have either had to apply for one of the limited work permits available, have been self-employed, or worked in specific jobs such as in seasonal agricultural or as domestic servants.
Under EU rules, these temporary restrictions must come to an end at the beginning of 2014, after which Romanian and Bulgarian migrants will have the same right to live and work in the UK as those of other EU countries – including access to benefits and the NHS.
Mr Hague added: “It is important there aren’t artificial, perverse incentives for people to come to the UK.
“We are looking in government at what more we can do to make sure that is controlled and that is fair across Europe.”
Ministers say the impact of the temporary work restrictions, and the fact that eight other EU countries are also ending their restrictions at the same time as the UK, make forecasting the number of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants who might come to the UK difficult.
According to the Office of National Statistics, in July 2012 there were 94,000 Romanians and 47,000 Bulgarians who are now resident in the UK.
Mr Hague said the current diaspora of Romanians and Bulgarians showed they had chosen countries other than the UK to move to, which offered “some reassurance”.
But the lobby group MigrationWatch, which supports tighter immigration controls, has predicted that 50,000 Bulgarians and Romanians will come to the UK every year when the restrictions are lifted.
It analysed migration from other European countries and the number of Bulgarians and Romanians already in the UK before making its estimates.
Mr Hague argued that the government was already working to reduce overall net migration to Britain.