Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to curb access to welfare, housing and free health care for non-Britons, as political parties jostle to persuade voters they understand concerns over mass immigration.
Cameron set out measures yesterday to restrict the rights of foreigners to claim unemployment benefits after six months.
He said local governments will be expected to make at least two years' residence a requirement for qualifying for social housing, and the state-run National Health Service will be stricter about charging foreigners who are in Britain temporarily.
With Britain's economy stagnating, politicians of all stripes have been seeking to assuage voter concerns about the possible effects of immigration on the labour market, public services and housing. Cameron's Conservative Party came third in a House of Commons special election in Eastleigh last month, behind the anti-immigration UK Independence Party.
The prime minister says he wants to cut net annual immigration below 100,000.
"I have always understood the genuine concerns of hard-working people, including many in our migrant communities, who worry about uncontrolled immigration," he said in a speech in Ipswich, eastern England.
As part of the measures announced yesterday, citizens of other European Union countries and some other western European nations will only be able to claim six months' unemployment benefit from next year unless they can show they have a genuine chance of finding work.
Temporary migrants from outside those countries may need private health insurance to qualify for NHS treatment.
"Ending the something-for-nothing culture needs to apply to immigration as well as welfare," Cameron said. "We should be clear that what we have is a free National Health Service, not a free international health service."
The opposition Labour Party called this month for greater restrictions on benefit payments to European immigrants. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who leads Cameron's Liberal Democrat coalition partners, said last week that "high-risk" immigrants from outside the EU should be required to post a bond to ensure they abide by visa conditions.
Restrictions on nationals from Bulgaria and Romania - the most recent EU members - working in Britain will be lifted next year. Labour has attacked the government for failing to release estimates of how many migrants will arrive. Far more people from the eight Eastern European nations that joined the EU in 2004 arrived in Britain than the-then Labour government forecast.
The number of Romanians and Bulgarians moving to Britain may hit 50,000 a year following the relaxation of controls, pressure group Migrationwatch said in January. Cameron said net migration to Britain totalled more than 2.2 million people between 1997 and 2009, more than twice the population of Birmingham, Britain's second-biggest city.
Cameron also announced measures to clamp down on illegal immigration. The maximum penalty for businesses that employ illegal workers will be doubled to £20,000 (HK$236,000), and there will be a legal requirement for landlords to check the migration status of new tenants. He said the government is legislating to ensure illegal immigrants cannot get driving licences, and is working to stop them getting credit cards, loans and bank accounts.
The UK Border Agency had a backlog of 312,726 immigration cases in the three-month period ending in September, a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report said yesterday.