Immigration has moved to the heart of the political agenda after the Government said that 427,000 people from eastern Europe had successfully applied to work in Britain in the past two years.
The Home Office admitted the real figure is about 600,000 when the self-employed are included. The numbers dwarf the 26,000 predicted by ministers before the eight former Soviet bloc countries joined the European Union in 2004.
Ministers stressed the benefits from the influx of new workers, 62 per cent of whom are from Poland. But the statistics fuelled the intense political debate over immigration policy. Some Labour MPs backed Tory calls for curbs on the right of people from Romania and Bulgaria to work in Britain after their countries join the EU, which is due to happen in January.
When he returns from his holiday in the Caribbean, Tony Blair will have to resolve differences in his Cabinet over whether the "open door" should be extended to Romania and Bulgaria.
Yesterday's figures could strengthen the hand of ministers led by John Reid, the Home Secretary, who want to limit the right to work here. He wants to deny the Tories the chance to exploit the issue before the next general election. But the Foreign Office is worried that curbs could damage the Government's pro-European credentials - and Mr Blair's hopes of bringing Turkey into the EU club.
Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister, said: "Any decision will be based on objective factors, including an evaluation of our labour market needs, but also the position of other EU member states."
Frank Field, a former minister, warned that opinion among Labour MPs was hardening against an "open door" policy because, with unemployment set to exceed one million, eastern European migrants were taking jobs at the expense of British workers.
Damian Green, the Conservative immigration spok-esman, said: "It is vital that we learn the lessons of the unprecedented numbers who came into this country after the last expansion of the EU. The Government should impose conditions similar to those applied by most European countries."
Richard Lambert, the director-general of the CBI, called on ministers to think carefully before allowing full working rights. "The UK has benefited greatly from the hard work of migrants from new accession countries," he said. "But it is only right that the UK takes the time to reflect on the earlier experiences and debates how and when to welcome the next phase."
Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of the think-tank Migrationwatch, which campaigns against mass immigration, said: "The case for placing restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians is now unanswerable. There must also be a sharp reduction in permits issued to the rest of the world."
But Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats' trade and industry spokesman, said: "We still do not know if Bulgaria and Romania will be joining the EU in January, and scaremongering ... achieves nothing. The Government must encourage the rest of the European Union to drop their protectionist labour restrictions so that the whole of Europe benefits from the accession of new member states."
Yesterday's figures show 264,560 Poles were accepted to work in Britain. The next largest numbers were from Lithuania (50,535) and Slovakia (44,300).
Most work in administration, business and management, followed by hospitality, catering and agriculture. More than 90 per cent had no dependants when registered, although 3 per cent arrived with children. Another 261,000 migrants from outside the EU were also given permits in the past two years. The number allowed to settle in Britain reached a record high of 179,120 last year, three times the level of 10 years ago. Most came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Separate figures showed new asylum applications fell by 15 per cent between the first and second quarters of 2006. From April to June, there were 5,490 applications, excluding dependants - the lowest since 1993.
The number of failed asylum-seekers removed was the highest on record, with 5,070, including dependants, removed in the second quarter, 3 per cent more than the previous three months and 35 per cent up on last year. But the total number of failed asylum-seekers and other immigration offenders removed in 2005 fell to 58,215 - down 5 per cent on 2004.
Where the main parties stand
Under Tony Blair, Labour has adopted a "firm but fair" policy. A tough stance on asylum-seekers has been designed to reassure voters that the Government is not "soft" on immigration. This has been coupled with a more liberal policy on migrant workers than some other EU countries. Ministers insist they have boosted the economy by filling jobs that needed to be done but now face a big dilemma on whether to allow workers from Romania and Bulgaria full access from January.
The party has deliberately softened its stance since the election of David Cameron. His modernising allies believe the party's hard line contributed to the Tories' image as the "nasty party". However, the Opposition now senses an opportunity to raise the issue as concern over Romania and Bulgaria extends to Labour MPs and ministers.
The party has consistently lived up to its name by being more tolerant on immigration. It insists that economic migration has helped make Britain one of the richest countries in the world, both economically and culturally. The Liberal Democrats accuse the two main parties of "scaremongering".Reuse content