LONDON Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday set out new welfare rules to cut access to social security payments for migrants from the European Union, the latest in a string of British measures aimed at addressing voter concern over immigration.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, Cameron said that from November migrants coming to Britain from the EU to find work would be entitled to claim unemployment and child benefits for three months, rather than the previous six months.
Opinion polls show immigration is one of voters' biggest concerns going into a national election in 2015, fuelling a rise in eurosceptic sentiment that has helped the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) draw voters away from Cameron's Conservatives.
In a bid to stop voters defecting, Cameron has said he wants to cut net migration and has targeted those who he says come to Britain solely to tap its benefit system.
"We’re ... making sure people come for the right reasons – which has meant addressing the magnetic pull of Britain’s benefits system," Cameron said.
He said that by restricting job seekers' welfare access to only three months he was sending a clear message to potential migrants: "You cannot expect to come to Britain and get something for nothing."
The opposition Labour party has criticised Cameron for not doing enough to stop low-skilled migrants driving wages down.
Other rule changes introduced since January have included tightening the eligibility criteria for claimants and mandating longer waiting periods before migrants are entitled to payments.
European Union officials have criticised Cameron's approach to immigration and said that there is no evidence to show migrants move to Britain to claim benefits.
"(Migrant workers are) of immense economic benefit to the member states in terms, in particular of responding to skills gaps and labour shortages," European Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd said on Tuesday when asked about Cameron's announcement.
"Many independent studies and our own studies systematically show that people go to other member states to work and not to claim benefits."
Todd said the Commission would scrutinise the new measures carefully to ensure they complied with EU law.
Other European countries such as Germany have expressed sympathy with Cameron's concerns over the abuse of welfare system by jobless migrants, and it is one of only a few policy areas where he has support for changes to EU rules.
In the face of eurosceptic sentiment within his own party and the wider electorate, Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain's ties with the EU if he is re-elected, and then put the country's continuing membership to a public vote in 2017.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Larry King)