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Britain rushes through EU benefits changes

(LONDON) - Britain said Wednesday it would rush through legislation banning EU migrants from claiming unemployment handouts from the moment they arrive, ahead of the January 1 lifting of restrictions on the entry of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.

Migrants from all European Union states will have to wait three months before applying for out-of-work handouts and other benefits.

The move was first announced among a package of measures to restrict "benefit tourism" last month, but has been accelerated amid concerns about an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians when they gain full rights to live and work in Britain from the start of next year.

When the three-month delay was first announced, the government said it was unlikely to be in place for the arrival of the first new migrants, but the restrictions have been brought forward.

"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," said Prime Minister David Cameron.

"Most EU citizens coming to the UK come here to work as part of the single market and contribute to the economy and pay their taxes.

"But for those who come here without jobs to go to, we are today tightening up the rules to stop them claiming out-of-work benefits from day one."

But the main opposition Labour Party accused Cameron's Conservative-Liberal Democrat government of waiting until the last minute before introducing the legislation. Parliament begins its Christmas break on Thursday.

Under the new rules, migrants from all 27 of Britain's fellow EU countries will be unable to claim jobseeker's allowance, a handout of at least GBP 56.80 ($92.50, 67 euros) a week, until three months after their arrival.

In a further change, the allowance will be cut off six months after the first payment, unless the claimant has "compelling evidence that they have a genuine chance of finding work".

Under the crackdown announced by Cameron last month, EU migrants will also be banned from claiming housing benefits, while migrants found begging or homeless will be removed and barred from re-entering Britain for a year.

The government has also proposed quadrupling the fine levied on businesses that employ migrants for less than the national minimum wage, to up to GBP 20,000 per employee, in a bid to stop employers exploiting cheap migrant labour.

Political hot potato

The previous Labour government admitted that it vastly under-estimated the number of immigrants who would come to Britain after several eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004.

According to some estimates, one million Poles moved to Britain.

The issue has become a political hot potato for Cameron, who is expected to raise the issue at an EU summit on Thursday and Friday.

A poll for The Sun newspaper found that 42 percent of respondents viewed limiting immigration from EU countries as a priority of the "utmost importance" for the prime minister.

The best-selling tabloid dedicated its front page to the issue on Wednesday, saying: "As PM flies to meet EU leaders, you tell him: Draw a red line on immigration or else!"

In a sign of the strains that the issue has caused, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin said Tuesday he had cancelled a planned trip to Britain this month.

But some observers doubted the efficacy of the measures.

Jonathan Portes, of the left-leaning National Institute of Economic and Social Research, told BBC radio: "A number of people have described these measures as phantom measures to combat a phantom problem. That seems to me to be about right."

He pointed out that the government had not released figures showing the number of immigrants claiming benefits during their first three months in Britain.

The row is also being played out across a backdrop of euroscepticism in Britain.

In a bid to placate Conservative backbenchers who want Britain to break away from the EU, Cameron has pledged to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the bloc before holding a referendum on membership by 2017.

A eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker, Philip Davies, said in parliament on Wednesday the government was "spitting in the wind when it comes to the problem that we face" and suggested the only way for Britain to regain control of its borders was to leave the EU.

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