Tony Blair was accused yesterday of caving to pressure from right-wing newspapers by approving a clampdown on benefits for immigrants from former Iron Curtain nations joining the European Union.
The move - revealed by The Independent on Tuesday - followed warnings in the press that up to 1.6 million immigrants could arrive in Britain from nations such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, when 10 new countries join the EU on 1 May.
Ministers estimate the figure at 13,000 a year but have been unsettled by the decision by other big EU countries, including Germany, France and Italy, to ban people from the new EU nations from working for at least two years.
The Daily Express and The Sun hailed the Prime Minister's promise on tougher restrictions as a victory.
But immigrants' rights groups condemned the U-turn for sending out the wrong message about Britain's attitude to newcomers. Tauhid Pasha, legal policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immi-grants, said: "The announcement isbased on the premise we are going to be inundatedand that they are going to be claiming benefits. These are two premises that are highly dubious. Our view would be what the Government is doing is responding to certain elements of the right-wing press."
He added: "Entitlement to benefit is entitlement to benefit and to change that for a certain section of people is preposterous. You are discriminating against people on the basis of their nationality."
Keith Best, the chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said: "It's a pathetic knee-jerk reaction. I wish the Government had a bit more moral fibre and backbone to stand up to the right wing." He said surveys had shown that the EU's expansion would have a limited impact on the numbers heading for the UK, although he acknowledged the harder line taken by other EU members could have an impact. "The reality is that we need these people to do jobs that we can't get the indigenous population to do," he said.
Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The PM's comments signal a U-turn which panders to ill-informed opinion and threatens to create a two-tier Europe. EU citizens should be equal, and the right to work elsewhere in the EU is at the heart of that.
Britain and Ireland are the only EU members that will allow people from the new EU nationsto work, but the Government is reserving the right to impose restrictions should more people arrive than expected. Mr Blair is understood to be considering a ban on benefit for at least 18 months.
* The House of Lords ruled yesterday that two families seeking asylum in the UK have the right to publicly funded accommodation in the area of their choice.It held that the families, who were sent to Glasgow but wanted to settle in London, were not bound to seek homes where they were first housed.