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EU: Free Movement of Labour

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the present arrangements for the free movement of labour within the European Union.

My Lords, the Government support free movement but do not tolerate abuse. We are focusing on work across government to tackle abuse of free movement and address pull factors such as access to benefits and public services. We have consistently raised the issue of fraud and abuse with other member states, and in April the Home Secretary wrote, with Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, to the Council presidency. We continue to welcome the brightest and the best but immigration must benefit the UK.

Given that the economies of the original EEC countries were at similar stages of development and that the 28 economies of the current EU are not, is the policy of free movement of labour compatible with current economic circumstances, and will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will be raising this matter with our EU partners in the course of his reform negotiations?

I can certainly reassure the noble Lord on his latter question. As regards our negotiations with the EU, although we support the principle of free movement we continue to give high priority to preventing the abuse of free-movement rights. The Home Secretary has repeatedly raised questions about free-movement abuse at European level and, as I said, we are getting increasing support for our position from other member states, including Germany.

My Lords, the Prime Minister argues eloquently for the completion of the single market and for its extension to services, which would greatly benefit this country, but is there not a transparent inconsistency, and is it not obviously counterproductive, to seek at the same time to modify the free movement of labour, which is one of the pillars of a single market?

I accept that the noble Lord is quite right in saying that free movement was one of the founding principles of the European Union, and we in this Government support it. Although the vast majority of individuals coming to the UK reside here lawfully and make a positive contribution to our society, a small minority abuse these rights by either becoming a burden on their local communities or turning to crime.

My Lords, in each answer the Minister has spoken of abuse of the system. Does he accept that enforcement of the national minimum wage helps to prevent bad employers undercutting the wage of local workers by not allowing them to exploit foreign workers on lower wages? We know that that is a real problem but only two prosecutions have been brought since this Government took office. To help tackle this issue, will the Minister and the Government support us by giving local councils the power to enforce the national minimum wage and bring their own prosecutions?

The noble Baroness has expanded the Question somewhat into Labour policy and that is not necessarily something on which I can support her. However, I reaffirm the Government’s support for the national minimum wage. Indeed, it has never been part of our policy to do other than to maintain a national minimum wage, and we do so regularly.

My Lords, will the Minister say whether the Government support the findings of the report published this morning by UCL which demonstrates that there are major benefits to this country from economic migrants from the European Economic Area and the European Union? If the Government agree, does he not think that it is more important to concentrate on the practice of free movement rather than the principle?

The principle is important but it is the practical that I have been trying to address. I have not read the UCL report but I have noticed the media comments on it and the key findings. I reiterate that what matters now is that we take steps, through our policy on access to benefits and public services, to reduce the incentives for abuse and to prevent this problem from growing.

My Lords, has my noble friend noticed the Ipsos MORI survey which shows that the level of abuse of free-movement rights is far less than Mrs May seems to imagine?

I have not noted that particular report. I am concerned that we are experiencing a pull factor in this country, and that is something that we need to address if we are going to get a proper balance between migrants who are coming here to support the British economy and those who, through other purposes, are seeking to abuse our systems.

My Lords, will the Minister recommend that all colleagues study reports on the nature of multinational corporations in this context? Is he aware that many executives and other workers in many industries, including the motor car industry, are moving all the time from, say, a job in Frankfurt to a job in Limoges or wherever? We need Ministers’ assistance to improve the public’s perception of this issue as the tabloids are not going to do it.

I agree with the noble Lord that many of the people coming here are essential to the British economy. That is why the Government facilitate their presence here, to support economic activity in the country. As I say, we welcome the brightest and the best.