Cameron forced to retreat on immigration: 'Game-changing' speech makes unexpected concessions to EU leaders

Proposals focus on benefits restrictions rather than cap on numbers

David Cameron has beat a retreat over Tory plans for Britain to impose a cap on numbers of European Union migrant workers in response to soaring levels of immigration, confounding hopes among many of his backbench MPs.

The Prime Minister announced an array of moves for stopping EU migrants from claiming benefits, but while attention was still focused on those moves he backed off from a confrontation with his counterparts on the Continent over proposals to introduce a quota system for migrants.

His plans, set out in a long-awaited speech that Mr Cameron’s allies hoped would be a “game-changer”, received a mixed reception from Eurosceptic backbenchers who had been pressing for a tougher stance with Brussels. The Conservatives had previously floated the idea of restricting the number of EU nationals allowed to work in Britain – a so-called “emergency brake” – and ministers had discussed it with EU counterparts. But it was conspicuously absent from his remarks yesterday, in the face of opposition from other European capitals.

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Cameron spoke to the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Getty Images)

Mr Cameron spoke to the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who is known to be one of many EU leaders who are staunchly opposed to diluting the principle of freedom of movement – ahead of the speech.

The idea of a cap was aired this month by the former Prime Minister Sir John Major, who had suggested introducing a limit on migrant numbers for a “shortish” period of around a year. Instead Mr Cameron said he supported the principle of freedom of movement across the Union – although he believed it could be reformed – and said a brake would be an “arcane mechanism in the EU that would be triggered by the EU Commission and not by us”.

The Prime Minister put his emphasis on introducing stringent welfare restrictions as a way of reducing the “pull-factor” attracting migrants to Britain.

He outlined proposals, to be included in next year’s Tory election manifesto, to ban migrants from receiving in-work benefits such as tax credits for four years and to stop jobless migrants qualifying for unemployment benefits. Those who cannot find a job within six months would be required to leave the country, he said.

 

The moves would give Britain the “toughest system” in Europe on migrant benefits, he said. But he warned the shake-up would require “hard pounding” to win over other EU leaders and acknowledged that some moves would require treaty changes.

Mr Cameron said more than 400,000 EU migrants received tax credits and other welfare payments which could be worth £700 a month to a couple with two children.

“Removing that economic incentive is the most powerful thing we can do to reduce levels of migration back to what the British people and I want to see,” he argued. Mr Cameron said his aim was to introduce pan-EU reforms, but he was ready to implement them in Britain alone if he did not gain support.

Ukip, which came under heavy attack from Mr Cameron yesterday, accused him of deceiving voters on the issue. Nigel Farage, the party’s leader, said: “He cannot control immigration from the EU and has dropped his suggestions of a cap or an emergency brake on numbers coming in.”

The Conservative MP for Amber Valley, Nigel Mills, said: “I think the message we needed was that we would put an absolute cap on it because we have too many people coming. The only comprehensible way of stopping that is to say: ‘Look, here’s how many we are prepared to take each year’.”

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British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration at a JCB factory in Staffordshire (Getty Images)

The veteran Tory Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash said: “Unfortunately, I don’t think it goes far enough, and the question really turns on the existing European rules and the treaties. Without actually dealing with that question, it is not going to be possible to deal with the problem as effectively as it could be.”

In his speech, delivered at a JCB factory in Staffordshire, Mr Cameron emphasised the value to Britain of EU membership, insisting he believed he could succeed in wresting powers back to this country from Brussels.

But he also signalled he was prepared to argue for Britain to leave the Union as a last resort if other member states resisted his plans to cut benefits to migrants.

“If our concerns fall on deaf ears and we cannot put our relationship with the EU on a better footing, then of course I rule nothing out. But I am confident that we can and will succeed.”

And although he did not refer to Ukip by name, he clearly had the anti-EU party in his sights as he warned politicians to take care over the language they used about immigration.

“We must anchor the debate in fact, not prejudice. We must have no truck with those who use immigration to foment division. We should distrust those who sell the snake-oil of simple solutions.”

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, said some of Mr Cameron’s ideas were “sensible and workable”. But he added: “There are some very serious questions about whether others will ever really happen in practice and whether they are deliverable.”

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Ukip came under heavy attack in Cameron's speech (Getty Images)

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said: “David Cameron is a busted flush on immigration. He has broken his promises to the public and made false promises to his party.”

A spokesman for Mr Juncker, said: “These are UK ideas and they are part of the debate. They will have to be examined without drama and should be discussed calmly and carefully.”

Battle of Britain: Czechs fight back

David Cameron’s pledge to ban immigrants from claiming benefits has prompted an acerbic response from a Czech minister.

Tomas Prouza, the Czech Republic’s Secretary of State for Europe, posted a picture of Czech fighter pilots who fought in the RAF in the Second World War.  He said: “These Czechs ‘worked’ in the UK for less than four years.  No benefits for them?” 

Czech fighter pilots earned a reputation during the war for being immensely brave.

Where the parties stand...

Conservatives

Migrants should be barred from claiming in-work benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit for four years. They should also only be entitled to social housing after four years’ residence.

Jobless EU nationals should lose any entitlement to out-of-work benefits including the new Universal Credit and be required to leave Britain after six months of seeking work.

Payment of child benefit to youngsters living abroad should be scrapped. Tougher rules on EU nationals bringing in partners from outside the union should be introduced.

The moves would reduce the economic “pull-factor” drawing migrants to the UK.

Labour

In-work benefits should only be paid to migrants after two years instead of three months, while jobless EU nationals should have to wait two years before claiming jobless benefits. The “absurdity” of child benefit and child tax credits being claimed for youngsters overseas should end.

In a “concrete plan” to stop employers relying on low-cost foreign employees, a ban should be imposed on employment agencies which only recruit abroad and the minimum wage should be enforced more strongly.

Migrants who do not speak fluent English should be barred from some public-sector jobs.

Liberal Democrats

Migrants should only receive Universal Credit once they have worked for six months – and then only for six months. In-work benefits should only be paid to migrants working the equivalent of a 35-hour week on the minimum wage.

Child benefit for youngsters living abroad should be cut (as a first step to paying the rate where the child lives).

Tough re-entry bans on migrants involved in identity or benefit fraud should be considered, but otherwise the principle of freedom of movement should not be threatened.

Ukip

Migrants should only qualify for benefits – in or out of work – if they have paid tax and National Insurance for five years and be entitled to permanent residence after 10 years. People whose “parents and grandparents were born locally” should have social housing priority.

Other parties’ proposals to cut migrants’ benefits could run into opposition (and legal action) in Brussels, which is a further reason for leaving the EU and taking control of Britain’s borders.

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