Michael Gove has been accused of deliberately “lying” to the public about EU citizens’ rights to access to the NHS as a cynical ploy to win votes in Labour leave marginals.
Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, wrote in the Mail on Sunday that it was “unfair” that EU citizens had “preferential access to free NHS care … without paying in”. His opponents said this creates an impression of “spongeing, bed blocking EU citizens”.
The Labour MEP Claude Moraes said he feared the Conservative party was reverting to 1980s “dog whistle” anti-immigrant campaigning to score political points.
EU citizens who are not students have access to the NHS only because they pay tax.
Nicolas Hatton, the co-founder of the3million, which campaigns for EU citizens rights, said Gove’s remarks were “disgusting” and “complete misrepresentation of the facts”. “It’s a cheap political ploy based on xenophobia designed to get votes.
“EU citizens do not have automatic rights to health systems in EU states. In the first three months, you are treated like a tourist with no rights, and after three months, unless you are are working or are self-sufficient, then you have no rights to the NHS,” said Hatton.
EU free movement rules are designed to enable easy movement of workers around the bloc and reciprocal health arrangements have enabled around 1.2m British nationals to settle in the EU with access to national healthcare.
Moraes said: “Gove is lying and I think they are going to continue lying for the campaign. The line that Gove used about ‘paying into’ the NHS is really an old-style racist trope and is designed to target Labour marginals where the vote is about leave or remain.
“You can’t pay into the NHS even if you wanted to. Michael Gove knows only too well that free movement is the new immigration and if you can conflate the two and throw in something about Aussie-style points system, you are saying to voters: ‘We will control EU migration, all the millions of “EU wasters”. We’re blocking them and the only brown and black people who come in will be heart surgeons or tech people.’ That’s the psychology of this, and it’s lethal.”
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, accused Gove of deliberately “bashing and blaming migrants” while the migration historian Tanja Bueltmann called it “dog-whistling”.
In his article in the Mail on Sunday, Gove said: “It’s unfair that people coming from European countries can access free NHS care without paying in while others make significant contributions … It’s not right that people from Bulgaria and Slovenia can come here without any controls and have automatic rights that people from Bangladesh and Singapore do not.”
Abbott said in a tweet: “Michael Gove is completely wrong to say people from EU are accessing the NHS without ‘paying in’.”
Moraes decried the emerging Tory narrative as a return to 1980s anti-immigration rhetoric. “What the Tories want to do is create the idea that there are big groups of people blocking public services for indigenous people,” he said. “The people they are targeting are people who don’t generally go to the EU to work and won’t be benefiting from the reciprocal nature of free movement. The free movement arguments don’t apply to them.”
Moraes said this cohort did not talk about free movement in focus groups, but did talk about immigration, and if the Conservative party could conflate the two it could gain political capital.
“When the Labour party manifesto is published on Thursday and Jeremy Corbyn explains he doesn’t mean unfettered access, that argument will struggle to be heard in Tory target Labour marginals where is all about leave and remain,” he added.
Sources close to Gove say his comments were referring to proposals to extend the £400-a-year NHS surcharge paid by non-EU citizens to nationals from the EU who arrive after Brexit.
Gove’s remarks came as Boris Johnson announced a range of border control proposals including a five-year wait for access to social benefits for all immigrants including those from the EU; the ending of child benefit being sent abroad, a practice it says will save £800m a year; and an increase to the annual health surcharge for all post-Brexit immigrants, including those from the EU, to £625.