» Wednesday, February 4, 2004

EU Accession Immigration

Asked to clarify what the Prime Minister had said when he referred to “withdrawing concessions” on immigration to the EU Accession countries, the PMOS made it clear that the Prime Minster was not talking about rescinding the right to work. We believed that the right to work was important to the UK, not least because of the skills shortages, for instance, which had been highlighted by the CBI earlier this week. What the Prime Minister, David Blunkett and Andrew Smith had been working on was action they could take to further tighten up procedures, such as the Habitual Residence Test for the 1st of May. That dealt with when people got benefits and so forth because we were not going to tolerate so-called “benefit-tourism”. We would stress again however that this was a precautionary exercise, because the evidence suggested that the predicted flood of people coming here, which had been predicted whenever any enlargement has taken place in the past, wouldn’t happen.

Asked if the Government was considering putting a ‘cap’ on immigration numbers, the PMOS said that we hadn’t yet reached the point where we had firm proposals to put forward. When we did, we would deal with all those issues.

Asked if we would take into account sections of the United Kingdom which were suffering from de-population with regard to immigration restrictions, the PMOS referred journalists to the point he had made about skill shortages which would seem to apply to that.

Asked for an assurance that there wouldn’t be any caps placed on skilled workers, the PMOS said that journalists should go to the Home Office for details, but he saw no reason why the Government would go down that road.

Asked if the Prime Minister had gone further in his phrase “withdrawing concessions” than the PMOS was going now, the PMOS said the reference to “withdrawal” was in terms of whether changes were necessary to a procedure such as the Habitual Residence Test. That was the sort of area we were specifically looking at, but in terms of detail journalists should go to the Department.

Asked if people from Accession Countries might have to demonstrate that they had work to go to or relevant skills, the PMOS pointed out that to pass the Habitual Residence Test people needed to demonstrate those sorts of things. The PMOS cautioned journalists against jumping ahead of the thinking-through process, which Downing Street was carrying out with the Home Office and the DWP. Asked whether we might impose a two year restriction on immigration, the PMOS said that one of the issues which would no doubt be considered was the period given to people to demonstrate that they were proper residents in the UK under the Habitual Residence Test. Questioned further, the PMOS said that we were not going in the direction of a two year restriction on Accession country immigration. The Government believed that because of the skill shortages he had referred to, the UK would gain a net benefit from this process. We were allowed under the relevant legislation to keep this matter under review, tighten legislation and introduce safeguards if we believed it to be necessary.

Asked if the Government was looking at withdrawing any concessions aside from the issue of benefits, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had been looking at the Habitual Residence Test. The Government would look at the picture in the round and see where we had got to. What he couldn’t do was pre-empt the outcome of that. Asked exactly what the “concession” was, the PMOS said that, in terms of the overall issue, it was about tightening up procedures and that was what he meant. Put to him that he seemed to be backtracking on what the Prime Minister had said, the PMOS said he was not backtracking. The central difficulty we had was that the Prime Minister was indicating a process of thinking going on in Government before we had got to the stage of reaching firm conclusions. It was perfectly legitimate for journalists to try and get him to indicate where we going. It was also perfectly permissible for him to reply that we were not yet at that stage. He could not in all honesty give any further information at this point. Questioned further, the PMOS made it clear that the Prime Minister was not talking about withdrawing the right to work. What he had been talking about was whether we needed to tighten the safeguards in order to deal with the problems that some people had raised concerns about.

Briefing took place at 15:45 | Search for related news

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