Leaked proposals to force a post-Brexit cut in low-skilled migrants from Europe have ignited a political row on the eve of a Commons battle over EU withdrawal.
Sir Michael Fallon insisted the Home Office document does not represent the Government’s final position but appeared to back its overall strategy and stressed that voters want a reduction in immigration.
The Defence Secretary told BBC Breakfast: “I can’t set out the proposals yet, they have not yet been finalised, they are being worked on at the moment.
“There is obviously a balance to be struck, we don’t want to shut the door, of course not.
“We have always welcomed to this country those who can make a contribution to our economy, to our society, people with high skills.
“On the other hand we want British companies to do more to train up British workers, to do more to improve skills of those who leave our colleges.
“So there’s always a balance to be struck.
“We’re not closing the door on all future immigration but it has to be managed properly and people do expect to see the numbers coming down.”
Sir Michael said Home Secretary Amber Rudd would bring forward finalised proposals on immigration later this year.
The leaked document raised the political temperature over Brexit after Labour insisted it would vote against the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which gets its second reading in Parliament on Thursday, and pro-Europe Tory MPs threatened to back amendments to the landmark legislation.
The 82-page government paper, obtained by The Guardian, suggests that new immigration arrangements would be introduced immediately after a Brexit transition period lasting at least two years.
Departure from the EU will mean “the end of rights-based, unconditional free movement”, with the Government adopting powers to take “a more selective approach” over which migrants will be allowed to work and settle in the UK.
It is understood that the document - marked “Official Sensitive” - is a draft version of a forthcoming White Paper which has been circulated among senior officials and politicians but has not been agreed by ministers.
“The Government will take a view on the economic and social needs of the country as regards EU migration, rather than leaving this decision entirely to those wishing to come here and employers,” it states.
This could involve requiring EU nationals to seek permission before taking up a job, making employers recruit locally first or restrict access to lower-skilled occupations which are not experiencing staffing shortages, the document suggests.
The Guardian quoted the document as saying: “Put plainly, this means that, to be considered valuable to the country as a whole, immigration should benefit not just the migrants themselves but also make existing residents better off.”
The leak drew fierce criticism from opposition parties ahead of crunch Commons votes on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which incorporates European law into British law, next Monday.
And the head of the Civil Service between 2012 to 2014, Lord Kerslake, delivered a withering assessment of Prime Minister Theresa May’s view that no Brexit deal would be better than a bad one.
He told BBC Newsnight: “It will be an utter and complete disaster for this country.
“We need to be very, very frank about this - there isn’t a no-deal option that would be good for this country.”
Asked if the Civil Service was able to deliver Brexit, Lord Kerslake said: “The challenge here, and I’ll be very direct about this, is, from my perspective, there is no upside here, this is about damage limitation.”
The leaked paper makes clear that the Government’s handling of post-Brexit migration will continue to be driven by the aim of reducing net immigration to “sustainable” levels, previously defined by the PM as below 100,000 a year.
Wherever possible, UK employers should “look to meet their labour needs from resident labour”, it suggests.
Among proposals floated to cut numbers of lower-skilled migrants are a restriction to two years’ residency, compared with work permits for a longer period of three to five years for those in high-skilled occupations.
It is not envisaged that EU citizens would be required to apply for permission to visit the UK for tourism, family visits and short business trips or be given stamps in their passports on arrival.
But they will have to show passports, rather than using a national identity card to enter the country.
Under the document’s proposals, those on longer stays would have to register with the authorities and may be required to provide fingerprints and proof of employment, self-sufficiency or study status.
The right to bring family members into the country could be tightened to only the most direct relatives like partners, spouses and children, and there could be an unspecified “income threshold” for EU citizens to show they can support themselves while in the UK.
Home Affairs Select Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper said the document seemed to contradict the Home Secretary’s decision just over a month ago to ask the Migration Advisory Committee to provide all the evidence to underpin a new immigration policy.
The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford called the leaked proposals “a disgrace” and said the policies could break up families.
Interim Ukip leader Steve Crowther said the paper “takes the right line”, but Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas said: “The Government’s post-Brexit immigration crackdown isn’t just economically illiterate, it’s plainly cruel too.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “These plans would create an underground economy, encouraging bad bosses to exploit migrants and undercut decent employers offering good jobs.”
Chai Patel, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the leak suggests the Government plans to “extend its current poor and unfair treatment of non-EU immigrants to European citizens post-Brexit”.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “Labour wants fair rules and reasonable management of migration in accordance with the needs of our economy and our values as a party.
“This leaked document is not yet Government policy. If it becomes so, we will judge it against the criteria we have laid out.”