Bulgarians and Romanians may have to wait up to seven years after their countries have joined the EU before they are allowed the same right to seek work in Britain as other east Europeans.
The Trade and Industry Secretary, Alistair Darling, hinted that the Government is hardening its line on immigration when he promised yesterday that migration from Romania and Bulgaria would be "properly managed".
His comments are in line with the views privately expressed by the Home Secretary, John Reid, who is convinced that the British public, including many of those who are themselves immigrants or members of ethnic minorities, are worried by the possible strain on housing and public services if no restrictions are placed on immigrants from the two countries that are due to join the EU in May 2007.
Mr Reid has told colleagues: "I don't believe in the free movement of labour: I believe the situation should be managed. You hear the same from ethnic minorities. There's nothing racist about it."
The Government's line, which was already hardening after last week's figures showed unemployment at its highest level for six years, has been given a further push by a high-profile campaign led by the Conservatives, echoed by a number of scare stories in right-wing newspapersin recent days.
Mr Darling told BBC News 24 yesterday: "What we need to do is balance the skills that we require - and yes, our economy does require skills in various areas - and at the same time having a system that is properly managed so we can take care of all the other things we need to consider, like the healthcare system, the education system and so on."
Last week, the influential Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, John Denham, called for a "breathing space" before workers from the new EU entrants are allowed free access to the British labour market.
The call was taken up by the Conservative shadow Immigration Minister, Damian Green. He said: "We must learn the lessons of the unprecedented numbers who came to this country after the last expansion of the EU. By controlling the numbers we can make life much better for everyone involved. Not only will we ensure the public service and housing infrastructure can cope, we will avoid people coming here only to fall into a life of squalor.
"Controlled immigration also helps to promote much better cohesion between existing and new people in this country."
When Poland and seven other former communist countries joined the EU in April 2004, most Western countries followed Germany's lead in saying that there would be a seven-year delay before their citizens had full entry rights. Only the UK and Ireland adopted more open-door policies. It has since been estimated that 600,000 Poles and others have entered Britain since May 2004, far exceeding the Home Office's predictions. There are fears that several thousand have failed to find work.
The new Tory campaign was backed by newspaper headlines like the one in yesterday's Sunday Express saying "HIV children bringing timebomb to Britain", which suggested that the NHS could be overrun by Aids-infected Romanian teenagers.
The Tories followed this up with a warning of the menace on the roads posed by overworked Romanian lorry drivers in charge of substandard vehicles. Figures from the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency suggested that 40 per cent of Romanian drivers drive longer than the permitted hours and that 46 per cent of their vehicles are faulty.
Susan Anderson, of the Confederation of British Industry, said: "There is a strong argument to pause for a period before opening up to workers from further new member states while we learn the lessons from experience to date."
But the CBI's former director general, Sir Digby Jones, warned that heavy-handed restriction on immigration would harm the UK economy. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he said: "Stop immigration and you stop building houses, schools, hospital, roads, and offices in the UK. If 'they' were to 'go home', you can forget this year's harvest in our fields. Britain is wealthier because of immigration."Reuse content