A good idea

Immigrant workers will be forced to have private healthcare, it has emerged. The surprise measure is designed to prevent them placing further strain on the National Health Service. It was included in the announcement that – for the first time – there will be a cap on the number of non-EU workers allowed into the UK.

Firms employing a migrant worker from outside the EU will have to pay for health cover for the duration of their contract – at a cost of hundreds of pounds. It means that migrants will not be competing with local people for NHS appointments and surgery.

Ministers are concerned that immigration is placing enormous strain on the Health Service, as well as on schools and housing. Last year, for example, research published by the think tank Migrationwatch showed that in 2007-8 alone, more than 600,000 migrants registered with a GP.

Under the new proposals, non-EU migrants would still receive accident and emergency treatment on the NHS but would have to pay through private insurance for other services, including GP visits and most operations.

Those who already have work permits will be exempt, but when the permit runs out and they have to re-apply, they will be expected to take out medical cover.

However, the system cannot be imposed on either asylum seekers, or on migrants from within the EU because of existing reciprocal arrangements between member countries.

Home Secretary Theresa May said the ‘social’ consequences of migration would be considered when the level of the cap on numbers is decided. She added: ‘We all recognise some of the social issues about pressure on public services, pressure on schools and hospitals and also pressure on housing.’

The figure will be decided later this year, with the help of the Migration Advisory Committee. In the meantime, an interim cap is being imposed to prevent a rush of visa applications by those trying to beat the crack down. The total number of permits issued will be five per cent lower than last year, which means 1,300 fewer arrivals.

The interim cap does not include the transfer of workers into the UK by multinational companies – a tactic which allowed 30,000 to relocate here last year. This has prompted speculation the cap policy has been watered down in the face of a Cabinet revolt led by Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable. However, the Home Office insists the decision relates to the interim cap only, and intra-company transfers could yet be included.

Entrepreneurs are exempt from the cap but may be obliged in future to show their business ideas would create more than the presently required two jobs in the UK.

Care home bosses warned that the measures could harm their ability to recruit staff with the right skills.

But Immigration minister Damian Green said: ‘We not only have a large number of unemployed British people who we need to train up much better than we have done in the past ten years, but also there is now a home labour market of the entire European Union – that is the best part of 500 million people.’

He added: ‘You hear a lot, inevitably, from interest groups at times like this but the biggest interest group in this is the British people as a whole. ‘It was one of the things where you got a pretty clear message from the election campaign that they did think that immigration was too high.’