Here's how to manage EU migration

Today's Sunday Times splash that "David Cameron plans to slash EU migration by imposing an annual cap on the number of national insurance numbers given to low-skilled immigrants from Europe" is the latest in a series of briefings which suggest that the Prime Minister is set to announce a big new policy position on EU migration. The front page of Thursday's Times suggested that:

One option under serious consideration is to demand from Brussels a so-called emergency brake on the number of migrants from particular EU countries. This would give ministers the power to block new arrivals if numbers increased above a set level on the grounds that further influxes would put unacceptable strains on public services and social cohesion.

Here's the plan I set out in my recently published book, Why Vote Conservative 2015:

Reform is needed to alleviate the negative effects of free movement and help us manage migration flows from the rest of the EU. As the Prime Minister said, ‘It is time for a new settlement which recognises that free movement is a central principle of the EU, but it cannot be a completely unqualified one.

First, there should be no entry for criminals. We should be allowed to deny entry to our country to people with criminal records. Other EU members would be able to bar our criminals, as we would theirs.

Second, there should be welfare responsibility. People who move countries to work should remain attached to their own welfare system until they have contributed enough not to be a burden on the society to which they have moved (each person would be given a transferrable ‘pot’ into which their contributions would go).

Third, we should transform our own welfare state to make it contribution-based, so as to promote incentives to work and ensure that our own citizens are equipped, through their education and training, to meet the needs of businesses which must compete in today’s global economy.

Fourth, as the Prime Minister has suggested, EU countries should be permitted to slow full access to each other’s labour markets if economic imbalances necessitate it to prevent excessive migration flows – for instance through caps on inflows above a certain annual level.

These reforms would address public concern and enable more balanced migration. They could be agreed by qualifying, not eliminating, one of the fundamental freedoms of the EU: the movement of labour.

Interestingly, a new report by Policy Exchange on Wednesday made similar proposals for a move towards contributory welfare under which the amount people receive in benefits would be linked to how much they have paid in.  The report deserved more attention, but the Independent noticed it, reporting that  "... the Chancellor is keen to extend 'personal responsibility' in the welfare system" and that "the report is being studied by the Downing Street Policy Unit and such reforms could be signalled in the Conservatives’ general election manifesto."

I'm encouraged that a number of the policy positions suggested in my book - including English Votes for English Laws, withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights, raising the threshold for the 40p tax rate and action on inheritance tax - have already been signalled by the Party leadership.  I hope that a move towards contributory welfare and decisive action on EU migration will be next.

How resistant would other EU member states be to qualification of free movement?  The outgoing President of the EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso today repeated the familiar warning that an "arbitrary cap" on migration would "not be in conformity with European rules" and that free movement of people within the EU was an "essential" principle that could not be changed.  But in a very interesting article in today's Independent, the Director of Demos, David Goodhart, suggests that sentiment in some Member States has "started to bend to the reformist mood."  Goodhart proposes that "the period before an EU citizen acquires 'habitual residence' in another EU country – and thus the full social, welfare and labour market rights of a national citizen – should be pushed back from three months to two years".  He also says that "there is a case for limiting access to the NHS for a period and even, as No 10 is considering, a Swiss-style 'safeguard clause' allowing restrictions if flows get too high."

The Prime Minister signalled In his Party Conference speech that migration from within the EU would be "at the very heart of [his] renegotiation strategy for Europe" and that he would "not take no for an answer and when it comes to free movement" but would "get what Britain needs".  That suggests a far tougher negotiating stance than was suggested in his Bloomberg speech.

In my book I also argue:

We are not Liberal Democrats, because we do not see only the benefits of EU membership. We are not UKIP, because we do not see only the costs. If there is sufficient reform to the EU it will remain in our national interest to stay in. If we cannot secure satisfactory changes, especially in relation to immigration, we should be prepared to leave. Under a Conservative government, it is the public – in a referendum which will be held in less than three years’ time – who will decide.

What is certain is that the prevailing mood in the Conservative Party is for action on the issue.  On Monday Boris Johnson, previously noted for a relatively pro-immigration stance, wrote in the Telegraph:

Britain is now the America of the EU; the place people want to come; the magnet for the hordes at Calais. It is only reasonable for us to have some kind of further protections – involving points or even quotas, agreed with business – so that we can manage this pressure. It would be madness to close our borders to talent; but it is also madness to continue with a system that means we have no idea how many are coming or what burdens they may place on the state.