The first suggestion that a Labour government might move to restrict freedom of movement for workers in the EU has come from Labour MP Chuka Umunna, who told an audience on BBC1’s “Question Time” programme on Thursday (09/01/14) that freedom of movement across the EU should not apply to those seeking a job – but to those who have one.
Mr Umunna – who is Shadow Business Secretary – said that there had been a shift in the original concept of freedom of movement for workers across EU member states:
"What people intended when they built the EU in the first instance was that people who either had a job – or had the skills to get a job – would move around the European Union,” he told the audience.
The UK jobs market and migration issues have recently come under the spotlight as a result of the lifting of border restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria from 1 January.
Contrary to what some media commentators suggested beforehand, the anticipated influx of jobseekers from these countries has not yet materialised.
Before Christmas, the government introduced restrictions on new migrants claiming benefits in the UK.
Chancellor George Osborne has also recently announced that another £12 billion in savings will have to be made to keep the economy on track – and welfare cuts are expected to deepen as a result.
Debate over migrant workers taking UK jobs and displacing British workers has been a recurring theme in some areas of the press – despite the fact many migrants who come to Britain are highly skilled or take low-paid jobs in industries which UK workers are reluctant to work in, such as agriculture or the hospitality industry.
The government’s new restrictions on out-of-work benefits for migrants means that jobseekers coming to the UK must wait for three months before being able to claim benefits – and then will only be able to claim them for six months unless they have a “genuine” prospect of getting a job.
Mr Umunna said:
“The founders of the European Union had in mind free movement of workers – not free movement of jobseekers; and undoubtedly we do have to work with our European partners to deal with that.” He added that highly skilled workers had come to the UK to do low-skilled jobs and this needed to be addressed.
Bulgaria and Romania have both criticised the UK for not welcoming the prospect of a new wave of workers from Eastern Europe – and last week Belgian MPs told the House of Lords the UK should encourage more migrant workers, as evidence suggested the UK was making money out of migrants coming to the UK to work.
As the 2015 general election approaches, the issue of migration is becoming a central issue for all parties.
On Friday (10/01/14), the EU Referendum Bill cleared its first stage in the Lords, bringing closer the prospect that the UK might leave the EU in 2017.
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