A speech by David Cameron on immigration has run into trouble after Downing Street clashed with the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, on the cost of treating European patients on the NHS and No 10 struggled to back up the prime minister's claims with hard statistics.
As the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) accused Cameron of increasing intolerance, the prime minister said it was right to tackle immigration that was "badly out of control" under the last government.
However, the speech was in danger of unravelling after Hunt directly contradicted Downing Street over the costs of treating patients from the European Economic Area (EEA) on the NHS. The EEA includes all 27 members of the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
The prime minister's spokesman said the NHS should recoup a further £10m to £20m towards the costs of treating EEA nationals on the NHS under reciprocal agreements. "We are looking at how you can better recoup costs from EEA countries," the spokesman said. "It is a question of the NHS getting better at being able to take and follow up the information it needs in order to recoup those costs."
Amid criticisms that £10m to £20m was relatively small figure on which to make such a major policy announcement – the NHS budget is more than £100bn a year – the health secretary disputed the No 10 claim. Appearing on Radio 4's The World at One as the prime minister was still speaking, Hunt said: "It is a huge issue. I don't think those numbers are at all accurate.
"The reason is because hospitals, if they treat someone who is not entitled to NHS care – if they declare that person is a foreigner who is not entitled to that care then they have the responsibility to collect the money from that person. Whereas if they declare that person as a UK national then the money is paid for by the NHS. So we have created a strong incentive for hospitals in the system not to pick out the people who aren't entitled to free NHS care. That is one of the things we need to change."
Asked how much he thought the NHS was losing, Hunt said: "I don't want to speculate on what that number might be. But the number we have heard is actually not £20m, it is £200m. I think it is significantly more than that."
Downing Street also struggled as it emerged that:
• Of the two million net migrants to the UK from the eight eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004, just 13,000 people have claimed jobseeker's allowance (JSA). This figure was not disputed by No 10.
• A claim by No 10 that there has been a 40% increase in the number of social lettings taken up by migrants between 2007-08 and 2011-12 appeared to gloss over the fact that this was only an increase from 6.5% to 9% in the proportion of such lettings.
The prime minister said it was important to act on immigration as he set out plans to restrict access to benefits for immigrants from the EEA and beyond. He announced, as expected, that JSA would only be available to those genuinely seeking a job for a maximum of six months.
He also announced that EEA immigrants would have to show a decent command of English. Cameron said: "We're going to make that assessment a real and robust one, and yes, it's going to include whether your ability to speak English is a barrier to work. And to migrants who are in work but then lose their jobs the same rules will apply. Six months, and then if you can't show you have a genuine chance of getting a job, benefits will be cut off.
"This means that EEA migrants who don't have a genuine chance of getting work after six months will lose their right to access certain benefits. So yes, they can still come and stay here if they want to, but the British taxpayer will not go on endlessly paying for them any more."
The prime minister was scathing about Labour's record. "Under the previous government immigration was far too high and badly out of control. Net migration needs to come down radically from hundreds of thousands a year to just tens of thousands.
"And as we bring net migration down so we must also make sure that Britain continues to benefit from it. That means ensuring that those who do come here are the brightest and the best, the people we really need with the skills and entrepreneurial talent to create the British jobs and growth that will help us to win in the global race."
Habib Rahman, chief executive of the JCWI, said: "This rhetoric may curtail rights to benefits on a minor scale, but relatively few migrants compared with 'indigenous' people actually claim benefit anyway. The real effect of this speech will be to further increase the intolerance and the hostile reception that immigrants are facing from some sections of society.
"There's nothing new about people from these countries coming to live and work in the UK. This media hysteria denies the fact that immigration helps our economy and is a great boon to tackling the coming demographic imbalanced posed by our ageing population."
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