EU expansion prompts welfare rethink

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Tony Blair has ordered a clampdown on the benefits paid to East European nationals amid fears that Britain is about to become a magnet for economic migrants from behind the former Iron Curtain.

Unlike other major EU economies, including France, Germany and Italy, Britain will allow unrestricted access to immigrants from the 10 nations about to join.

The Home Office says the move will lead to only 13,000 arrivals a year, but has been stung by reports that it will encourage "benefit tourists", such as poverty-stricken Gypsies from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, to head for the UK.

The Government also thinks that the vagueness of rules under which immigrants can qualify for benefits could become a "pull factor". At the moment, claims for income support and housing benefit are decided individually and are dependent on claimants persuading officials they are "habitually resident" in Britain.

Mr Blair, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will draw up more explicit benefit rules, to be announced within weeks, before the official expansion of the EU on 1 May, and backed by publicity in many of the accession states.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the rules would "make sure any potential areas of abuse are stopped". She confirmed that the Government reserved the right to impose controls if numbers arriving in Britain exceeded predictions.

But a Tory spokeswoman said: "We need to act now. There's no point closing the door after the horse has bolted."

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta will become full members of the EU.

Under pressure from Germany and Austria, the EU insisted on the right of existing member states to prevent workers from the new countries working for a maximum of seven years. Initially the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, agreed to keep their doors open, but the last three later imposed work permit and welfare restrictions.