David Cameron will signal his determination to make immigration a key election issue tomorrow, when he pledges to stop new migrants getting taxpayer-funded homes as soon as they arrive in the UK.
The Prime Minister will use a high-profile speech on immigration to announce plans that will force councils to bar migrants from social housing waiting lists until they have been in the country for up to five years. The proposal will form part of a government-wide crackdown on new migrants' access to the benefits system and welfare services, including the National Health Service.
Pressure groups last night warned that the intervention would stoke up an "anti-immigration debate" which could increase hostility towards immigrants already living in this country.
Mr Cameron's dramatic intervention, days after Nick Clegg said migrants from "high-risk" countries should only be allowed into the UK if they pay a deposit of at least £1,000, reinforces the expectation that the main parties are preparing to trade blows over immigration in the run-up to the general election in 2015. Labour has already admitted that it failed to heed voters' concerns over rising immigration when it was in office. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, yesterday told activists that the failing was one of several mistakes made by the Labour government which he had since tried to rethink.
But, amid continuing concerns over the number of new migrants entering the UK – and the benefits available to them when they arrive – Labour's opponents see immigration as a crucial issue on which the party can be made to look soft during a potentially brutal election campaign.
Mr Cameron's analysis of the immigration issue will begin with an accusation that Labour in government was a "soft touch" on immigration issues. Using language that opponents may well criticise as provocative, he will set out his own plans to ensure the immigration system "backs people who work hard and do the right thing".
The Prime Minister will highlight housing as an area where governments have failed to exert enough control, leading to allegations that newcomers are granted privileged access to subsidised accommodation. Mr Cameron will insist that the Government must prevent the development of a "something-for-nothing" culture among new arrivals to the country.
His central pledge will be new regulations to ensure that local councils open their social-housing waiting lists only to established UK residents. At present, councils can impose their own local selection criteria but, to the frustration of ministers, many do not.
The coalition will allow councils to legislate for exceptional circumstances, "to ensure UK nationals are protected when they are moving for genuine reasons" – including for work or after a family breakdown.
"At present almost one in 10 new social lettings go to foreign nationals," a Downing Street source said yesterday. "We want to ensure that we remove any expectation that new migrants can expect the British taxpayer to give them a home on arrival.
"We will introduce an expectation through statutory guidance on councils to introduce a local residency test in determining who should qualify for social housing. Someone would have to live in an area for between two and five years before they could even go on the waiting list." The source added: "This will stop someone from turning up and immediately gaining access to social housing."
But Jan Brulc, of the Migrants' Rights Network, said the proposals, and the escalating rhetoric, endangered the well-being of millions of immigrants who already live in the United Kingdom.
He said: "It is clear after Nick Clegg's speech that immigration will feature heavily in the election debate, but it will be an anti-immigration debate that will do nothing for the comfort of the migrants who are already in this country.
"The argument over the possible arrival of people from Romania and Bulgaria was the first indication of this trend. These proposals will increase the rhetoric, as No 10 intends, but they will affect many people who aren't migrants but who have to move around and be flexible in their careers."
The shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, dismissed the proposals. He said: "It is all very well Mr Cameron coming up with grand plans, but since he came to power, fewer illegal immigrants have been stopped at our borders, fewer foreign criminals have been deported and more people have absconded from Heathrow airport.
"If he is not looking after the nitty-gritty of this issue, he cannot command the trust of the British people."
But the UK Independence Party's leader, Nigel Farage, yesterday stepped into the debate and accused the main parties of being "all the same" on immigration because they wanted an "open door" to eastern Europeans.
Highlighting fears that large numbers from Romania and Bulgaria would want to come to the UK when movement restrictions are lifted next year, he told colleagues at the Ukip spring conference in Exeter that: "The benefits system in this country should be there to be used by British nationals."