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EU: Free Movement of Labour

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recent remarks by the Prime Ministers of Sweden and Finland at the annual meeting of Baltic and Nordic leaders in respect of the free movement of labour within the European Union and its relationship with the internal market.

My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of free movement in relation to the internal market, but free movement is not an unqualified right. We are working with other member states to tackle abuse of this right and to ensure that we prevent sudden and uncontrolled migrations of the kind seen following previous accessions of new member states.

My Lords, the Prime Minister found himself isolated from his supposed friends and allies at the Helsinki meeting in his approach to the question of placing limits on the free movement of labour in the European Union. Does he recognise that, by his continuous appeasement of UKIP and by what the Economist called his recent “railing” against the institutions of Europe, he is setting Britain on the path of exit from Europe? Can the Minister assure us that there will be no more appeasement of UKIP before or after the Rochester by-election because, unless he changes course, in the event that he should become Prime Minister again after May he could go down in history as the Prime Minister who did more to destroy British influence in America, among our friends in Europe, in the Commonwealth and in the rest of the world than any of his predecessors?

My Lords, the Prime Minister was certainly not isolated when he met Prime Ministers at the Northern Future Forum. There was a strong and constructive discussion over dinner about many subjects, with migration clearly being an important one. Although it was a private meeting, the result was that when those present met the next day for their press conference, the Prime Minister was able to say in front of them and with their agreement that:

“I think there was common ground on a number of points”.

Some “problems and issues” had been identified in relation to welfare and benefits but,

“all of the countries around the table last night said that was something that should be looked at”.

He was supported in that by the Finnish Prime Minister, Mr Alexander Stubb, who thanked us for opening our borders in 2004, but also said that we should see what we could all do about the situation to try to alleviate it. In arguing for the interests of this country, the Prime Minister can find those of a like mind who see that a strong Europe addresses the problems that all states are facing. That is because it is to the benefit of all the states of Europe to ensure that we have a system of migration which is not an unqualified right, but is founded in the right to work, contribute to the economy and assimilate into society.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Prime Minister, in seeking to ensure that we have control of our own borders, is not seeking to appease UKIP but is reflecting the views of the vast majority of people in this country? The failure of the Liberals to understand that may explain why their support is evaporating.

Does my noble friend accept that it would be a good thing if both the Government and the Opposition spent a bit more time explaining why and what immigrants from the rest of Europe contribute to our economy, how much good they are doing here, and how valuable it is for us to have the free movement of our labour into the rest of the European Union?

My Lords, the Prime Minister is the first to explain how membership of a reformed EU is for the benefit of this country. I think that he did rather tease the Lithuanian Prime Minister by pointing out that 6% of the population of Lithuania now lives in the United Kingdom, so clearly we all have different problems with migration. My experience over the years has shown me that migrants form a very valuable part of our society. It is clear, though, that the increase in EU migration has caused some stresses and strains in some areas of the country on services such as health. That should be of concern to us all. We need to put that right to ensure that, when migration works, it is to the benefit of everybody.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness clarify whether the Government are still committed to reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament—no ifs and no buts? That is despite evidence, as the noble Lord has just suggested, that EU migrants alone make a £20 billion contribution to the UK economy. Can the Government confirm whether they are still committed to capping the number of EU migrants to Britain irrespective of the comments of the Prime Minister’s so-called allies? How does he intend to convince them that this would be a good idea?

My Lords, the latter point referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, is of course not part of government negotiations. It is something that may be proposed in the future in a manifesto. On her first point, on television this morning the Home Secretary made clear our commitment to ensure that the numbers are reduced.

If we are all very brief, we should be able to get in a question from the Cross Benches and a question from the Liberal Democrats.

My Lords, everyone would agree that we should clamp down on illegal immigration and those who come to take advantage of this country. However, is the Minister aware of a recent poll ranking the contributions of immigrant communities? One of the countries that came highest for a positive contribution was the Polish community, with 44%. On the other hand, the Bulgarians were on just 18%, although the Bulgarian ambassador pointed out that only 1,000 Bulgarians were on benefits. Why, then, do we not appreciate the contribution of immigrants from the European Community as well?

My Lords, we do indeed appreciate the contribution of those who come from the EU to work here. The problem relates to those who come and decide that they will not work. That is why we made changes to the benefits system; that is why Germany is in the process of doing much the same.

My Lords, does the Minister welcome the judgment of the European Court of Justice just this morning, as I do, confirming that benefit tourism is not part of the free movement scheme, which is indeed a right to move for work? It has also confirmed the three-month wait period before even those genuinely seeking work can claim benefits. Does she agree that it is entirely in the UK’s interests to support the single market, including liberalisation of services, of which the free movement of people is a part? Cherry picking is therefore not in our national interest.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing the attention of the House to a judgment that was handed down only this morning. It related to a case taken against the German Government and, in effect, the judgment confirmed that EU migrants who do not have sufficient resources to support themselves and would become an unreasonable burden cannot access national welfare systems. This really highlights that the EU needs a clearer legal framework, clarifying the original treaties and allowing member states to retain control over their own national security systems. It is an important judgment and we will look at it carefully. It will have ramifications across the EU and we will have to consider all matters in much more detail as a result.