Tony Blair has declared his support for giving people from Romania and Bulgaria the eventual right to work in Britain after their countries join the European Union in January.
The Prime Minister hinted that some short-term curbs, possibly through a temporary system of work permits, might be introduced, but made clear his determination to reject demands for a "closed door" approach to the two nations.
John Reid, the Home Secretary, has led cabinet calls for tough curbs on Romanians and Bulgarians. Although officials in most other Whitehall departments back an "open door" policy, some ministers want to reassure voters that Labour is not "soft" on immigration by imposing restrictions.
Blair aides said a final decision was still "wide open" and that the Prime Minister's comments, in his speech to the TUC yesterday, were designed to "rebalance" the debate inside the Government so it is not panicked into draconian curbs by pressure from the Tories and the press.
The Prime Minister extolled the economic benefits of migrant workers, saying they had boosted growth by between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent a year. In a surprise move, he applauded a TUC general council statement which backs the free movement of workers within the EU, calls for greater protection for migrant workers, and says that "no persuasive case" has been made for restrictions on the right of Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Britain.
He insisted Britain was right to grant the right to work to people from eight former Communist countries who joined the EU two years ago, saying that its decision had now been copied by Spain, Portugal, Finland and Italy. "The evidence is they have helped and not been a burden. Ninety-seven per cent work full-time. Only 3 per cent of A8 migrants [from the new EU countries] bring their children with them. Preliminary figures suggest up to 50 per cent are returning home," he said.
But he said controlled immigration required tough border controls, including identity cards. And he promised help for local authorities and other public bodies affected by a large influx of immigrants.
Mr Blair warned that losing the argument over EU expansion would put Turkish membership at risk, which with its huge Muslim population "would be a seismic decision, with consequences far beyond Europe".
He added: "I don't want to live in a closed society. One that hides away in the face of terrorism or leaves others to do the dirty job of fighting it. I want an open society with rules; one that delights in its tolerance and pursues justice not only within our borders but outside them."