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29th Feb 2024

British ministers take aim at EU migrants

  • Brexit talks due to start next March (Photo: Jaypeg)

UK ministers spoke of hiring “British citizens first” and of deporting “EU criminals” on the third day of a Tory party conference in Birmingham on Tuesday (4 October).

Amber Rudd, the home secretary, said she would get immigration down to just tens of thousands of people a year because that was the “clear message” of what British people wanted from the Brexit referendum.

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She said she would “ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do”.

“I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers”, she said.

She promised a crackdown on companies, such as minicab firms, that hire illegal migrants, and on landlords that rent properties to people without papers.

She indicated that in future, only foreign students who graduated at top universities such as Oxford or Cambridge would be able to stay and work in the UK.

She also said that “we will make it easier to deport EU criminals, aligning their fortunes more closely with those from outside the EU … for the first time, we will deport EU nationals that repeatedly commit so-called minor crimes in this country”.

David Davis, the minister in charge of Brexit talks, made similar promises.

He said his job would be to “get the powers back” on immigration and raised the prospect of skills-based work permits for migrants.

“Typically the way work permits work in other countries, is you try to get a British citizen first and if you haven’t you have got to do that first. There will be tests like that”, he told the party congress in his speech.

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, pledged to reduce the number of foreign workers in the National Health Service by training 1,500 more British doctors each year.

“Currently a quarter of our doctors come from overseas … When it comes to those that are EU nationals, we’ve been clear we want them to be able to stay post-Brexit”, he said.

But he added that, in future, “we will make the NHS self-sufficient in doctors” so that there “will be more home grown doctors … looking after you and your family”.

Applause and tumbling pound

Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, also repeated his threat to veto EU defence integration by the other 27 member states so long as the UK remained a member.

“We will go on blocking an EU army, which would simply undermine Nato”, he said.

Tuesday’s speeches came after British prime minister, Theresa May, on Sunday also promised to put British "sovereignty" on immigration ahead of EU single market access in future talks.

Her words were greeted with applause at the Tory event and with dismay on the financial markets, which sent the value of the British pound tumbling to another historic low.

She reiterated her position on a BBC radio show on Tuesday morning, adding: “Once we leave the EU there will be the opportunity to control movements coming from the European Union”.

Her strong stance was welcomed by Liam Fox, the British trade secretary.

Reacting to May’s speech on British sovereignty, he said: “I can't tell you how long I have waited to hear a prime minister deliver a speech on Europe that Theresa May delivered … All my political life I have waited for this moment”.

No mandate to cut links

The exit talks are to start in March and last at least two years, after which Britain would lose privileged access to EU markets unless there is a new deal.

EU leaders have said the UK cannot have access without letting in migrant workers, while urging Britain to tone down its anti-European rhetoric.

Not all Tory MPs were equally triumphalist in Birmingham, however.

Noting that the referendum was decided by a narrow margin, Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP and a long time advocate of leaving the EU, told press the party had no mandate to cut “all links” with Europe.

"It is a mandate for a phased repatriation of power within the context of containing military security and commercial ties. I think it is possible to satisfy most people," he said.

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