David Cameron has been warned by Tory grandee Ken Clarke that barring European Union nationals from claiming benefits in Britain would be “totally discriminatory”.
The Prime Minister is said to be considering pledging a two-year block on handouts for new arrivals in a bid to win back voters from the Uk Independence Party.
The pressure on Mr Cameron was increased yesterday when Home Secretary Theresa May admitted the government was “unlikely” to meet his target of cutting net annual migration below 100,000.
Tory former Cabinet minister Mr Clarke suggested his approach was to blame for the poll surge that saw Nigel Farage’s party win the Rochester and Strood by-election last week.
“I do think the tactics of the two major parties of government – the serious parties of government – of trying to imitate Ukip since then have actually made them more credible and has gifted them two by- elections,” Mr Clarke said.
“Because we were campaigning in a way that was supporting their anti-European, anti-immigration front running things.
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“We have probably provoked a whole fresh rash of demands from Eurosceptics in the media and in parliament for yet more demands from Europe and leaving Europe and all this sort of thing.
“We’ve got to get back to a serious agenda where Ukip have no policies worth talking about – on the economy, on the health service, on education – and remind people that you are electing somebody who’s got to govern the country in the middle of a rather serious crisis still.”
Mr Clarke said talking about the economy was “a damn sight more sensible than “how can we be rude to Europeans to cheer up Ukip?”
“What we mustn’t do is keep trailing all kinds of suggestions of things we can think of that might be nasty to Europeans on the benefit front,” he added.
Mr Cameron’s team is believed to have been studying proposals from think-tank Open Europe that would stop EU immigrants receiving in-work benefits such as tax credits. About 250,000 are thought to receive the income top-ups, costing the government around £1.6 billion a year.
A report from the think-tank suggests a single Spanish immigrant on minimum wage can see their weekly income rise from £214.07 to £290.28.
But Mr Clarke said withdrawing the benefits would be “totally discriminatory”. “You have an Englishman working alongside a Pole doing the same job, they both pay the same taxes – which among other things pay for tax credits – and the Englishman gets the tax credit and the Pole doesn’t.
“If I was a Polish politician, I wouldn’t agree to that in a negotiation and I don’t think it would pacify the Ukip people and the extreme Eurosceptic people,” Mr Clarke added.
Mrs May said that non-EU immigration had been brought down to similar levels as at the end of the 1990s. “But it is, of course, unlikely that we are going to reach the tens of thousands by the end of the parliament,” she said.
“Why is that? It’s because we have seen increasing numbers of people coming from across Europe, partly because our economy is doing better than other economies in Europe.”
She said the government had been doing “what we can”.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “Theresa May has finally admitted that her net migration target is in tatters yet she still won’t take responsibility for it.”
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