May at centre of row over free movement of workers

Theresa May wants to introduce a cap on EU migration which could stand at 75,000 a year. Picture: PA
Theresa May wants to introduce a cap on EU migration which could stand at 75,000 a year. Picture: PA
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A FURIOUS row has broken out in the coalition government over the right of European Union nationals to work in the UK, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg branding proposals in a leaked Home Office document “illegal and undeliverable”.

Reports over the weekend suggested that Home Secretary Theresa May wants to introduce a cap on EU migration, possibly at 75,000 a year, with professionals and high-skilled migrants from wealthy countries such as Germany, Austria or the Netherlands allowed in only if they had a job offer and lower-skilled workers permitted to settle only if they were employed in posts where there was an identified shortage.

Mrs May said that reform of the right to free movement should form part of any negotiations on new arrangements for the UK’s membership of the EU.

She revealed that she has ­already been discussing the issue “for some time” with counterparts in other EU states who are also concerned about issues such as “benefit tourism” and movements of workers between countries with wide disparities in incomes.

The Home Office paper is understood to have been drawn up as part of the government’s “balance of competences” review of how EU rules impact on the UK.

Liberal Democrat sources said that the publication of a “balanced” cross-governmental assessment of the freedom of movement issue had been delayed by resistance from the Home Office, only for a “very selective, one-eyed version” of the argument to find its way into a Sunday newspaper.

Mr Clegg made clear he had no doubt that Mrs May’s department was to blame for the leak, telling a Westminster press conference: “My advice to the Home Office is to spend less time leaking policies that are illegal and undeliverable and spend more time delivering on the policies we have agreed as a coalition – notably the reinstatement of exit checks.

“I remain very frustrated that the Home Office has still not delivered something which I personally insisted should be in the coalition agreement, which is a reinstatement of the checks which allow us to know not only who’s coming into this country but who’s leaving as well.”

Mrs May declined to comment on the leaked report.

But she said: “This is something I’ve been talking about with my opposite numbers – ­interior ministers in other countries within the European Union – for some time now.

“There is a growing concern not just here in the UK, but elsewhere too, about the abuse of free movement, about the way in which people can move freely across Europe, sometimes for access to benefits.”

The UK is already tightening up rules on migrants’ access to benefits, as Romanian and Bulgarian nationals gain new rights to live and work in Britain from next month.

Mrs May made clear that she and Prime Minister David Cameron want further reforms to control the access of nationals of any future EU entrants.

She said: “What the Prime Minister has said and what I have said is that in looking at ­reform of the EU, we need to look at this whole question of the ­arrangements for new countries that come in – the so-called accession countries.

“At the moment, you can restrict free movement rights for seven years. What both the PM and I have said is we need to look at this and think about whether that should be longer, whether it should be more flexible, whether we should look at restricting free movement rights until a country’s national income, GDP, is at a certain level, so we are not looking at the great disparities we sometimes see across the EU.”

Lib Dem sources said they now expect an announcement on the reforms in early 2014.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “What we need is proper measures to take action to prevent a race to the bottom between workers coming here and local workers. That’s why Labour has put out very specific proposals, for example clamping down on firms who don’t pay the minimum wage.”