Britain faces a new influx of migrants who could claim benefits of up to £250 a week within weeks of arriving.
From next Sunday, rules that ban Eastern Europeans from claiming unemployment, housing and council tax benefits until they have worked in the UK for 12 months are being lifted.
Critics are concerned about the risk of ‘benefits tourism’ by immigrants from the eight former Communist countries affected.
It is feared that the relaxed rules will attract new immigrants, as well as persuading the one million or so Eastern Europeans already in Britain to stay.
When the countries joined the EU in 2004, their citizens were barred from claiming jobseeker’s allowance or housing and council tax benefits in the UK until they had worked here for 12 months continuously. The stringent rules meant few qualified.
But the restrictions were time-limited – it was always intended they would end when a transition period finished seven years after the countries joined the EU.
From next Sunday they will be treated exactly the same as Britons. They will be able to claim the three benefits immediately, as long as they can prove they meet their own countries’ requirements for unemployment benefit, are seeking to work, and are ‘habitually resident’ here.
The ‘habitually resident’ qualification means they will usually have to have been here for three months.
The countries are: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia. They still tend to be poorer than Western European nations and wages and benefits are less generous. Professor Krystyna Iglicka, an expert in migration from the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw, said: ‘These new benefit rules will make Poles feel even more at home in Britain and it is another reason why they will never leave.’
Kamil Lesniak, a 20-year-old barman from the south-west Polish town of Taenobrzeg, said he would be on his way to the UK ‘tomorrow’ if the British benefits system could match his monthly income of £450.
Eva Katona, 22, is considering moving to Britain from the Hungarian capital, Budapest, to work as a nanny or carer.
‘The unemployment benefit in England is higher than a salary here and I have been told I can go on the dole as soon as I get there,’ she said.
‘It is not my intention to do that but it is nice to have the sort of security you would not find here.’
Since the EU expanded in 2004, Britain has experienced its largest wave of migration, despite official predictions that only 13,000 workers would want to move here.
The Home Office said it did not know how many migrants would be attracted to Britain by the benefits rules changes, although it estimates they will cost £30million a year.
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of campaign group MigrationWatch UK, said: ‘The Government has not asked the question because it does not want to hear the answer.
‘This is a space that will need careful watching. There’s no way of knowing what effect this change will be but there is clearly a risk that the British welfare state will be exploited.’
The Department for Work and Pensions insisted that the rule changes will not mean people will be able simply to come to the UK and start claiming benefits – because there will be strict tests.
The rules have to be lifted because they conflict with the EU’s freedom of movement laws.