Ministers are expected to impose curbs on workers from Romania and Bulgaria coming to Britain after evidence that the UK could be more attractive to them than for people in other former Soviet bloc countries.
Initial studies by Whitehall officials suggest the UK could become a magnet for people in the two nations due to join the European Union in January because unemployment is higher and the standard of living lower than in former Communist countries which entered the EU two years ago.
Although the Cabinet will not discuss the issue until next month, opinion is moving against extending the so-called "open door" policy. One government source said yesterday: "We are still looking at all the figures but we have got to bear in mind that the economies of Romania and Bulgaria are different to those of the [other] eight countries."
Ministers are wary of giving the green light to workers unless the other EU members do so. Only two other countries, Ireland and Sweden, adopted an "open door" policy when the eight joined, and France and Germany imposed a much stricter system of permits.
Officials are studying how many of the estimated 600,000 workers who have come to the UK from the eight in the past two years are likely to settle permanently. Many have already returned home and the Government's labour force survey suggests the number at work in Britain is around 300,000.
No decisions have been taken on what restrictions would be imposed on new workers. The options include a quota system, phasing in the right to work in the UK or delaying it for several years. Ministers in favour of some curbs include John Reid, the Home Secretary, and John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary.
Mr Hutton is anxious to ensure any restrictions are not seen as a change of policy towards the "Little Englander" approach Labour claims the Tories favour. He wants to continue to extol the positive benefits of immigration.
The Tories urged the Government to make its intentions clear after the Home Office announced on Tuesday that 427,000 migrants from the eight eastern European countries had registered to work in Britain since 2004, more than 60 per cent of whom came from Poland. When the self-employed are included the figure rises to about 600,000.
Ministers are wary of being portrayed as "soft" on immigration by the Tories. Although the Tories have softened the line they adopted at last year's general election, they have demanded a clampdown.
Some senior Labour MPs have backed the Tory calls amid fears that British workers are losing out. But initial research by the Department of Work and Pensions found little evidence to support such fears.Reuse content