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UK vows tougher immigration rules

Britain had been a ‘‘soft touch’’ David Cameron said.

Britain had been a ‘‘soft touch’’ David Cameron said.

LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain promised more stringent rules Monday to reduce outsiders’ access to social, health and housing benefits, reflecting a debate over the potential effect of increased immigration from southeast Europe that could fuel a rightist challenge to his dominant Conservative Party.

The prospect that citizens from Bulgaria and Romania could gain unfettered access to the British labor market has raised alarms among some Britons about competition for jobs, strengthening anti-immigrant sentiment and helping fuel the insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party.

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Romanians and Bulgarians gain full access to Britain’s job market next January. The debate in Britain is particularly vociferous because officials hugely underestimated the number of immigrants who came to Britain after eight other formerly Communist nations joined the European Union in 2004.

In a speech to a university audience in Ipswich, in eastern England, Cameron began by praising generations of previous immigrants, saying ‘‘we’re rolling out the red carpet to those whose hard work and investment will create new British jobs.’’

But, he also said that Britain had been a ‘‘soft touch’’ under the previous government and that net migration needs to come down radically.

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