As published in The Telegraph:
David Cameron faces unrest over EU migration from inside government;
Minister Kris Hopkins joins anonymous government aides to back Tory demands for a ban on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants
David Cameron is facing a rebellion from inside the government over plans to allow an unlimited number of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants to move to Britain from next year.
A minister has publicly backed a campaign by more than 50 Tory rebels who want Mr Cameron to pass a new law restricting the rights of Romanians and Bulgarians to travel to the UK for work.
Kris Hopkins, the housing and local government minister, defended Conservative backbenchers who are calling for the current border controls on migrants from the two countries to be extended when they lapse in January.
He warned that a failure to address public fears over immigration with “robust” action would drive voters into the arms of far-Right parties and extremists.
Mr Hopkins’s intervention came as it emerged that a number of other members of the Government have been warned by Tory whips not to back a rebel amendment to the Immigration Bill, which would ban Romanian and Bulgarian migrants until 2019.
Mr Cameron is facing growing demands from his own party to force a legal battle with Brussels over control of Britain’s borders amid concerns of a fresh wave of mass migration from Eastern Europe.
Under “transitional” rules introduced when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, migrants from these two countries can only work in the UK in seasonal jobs such as fruit picking, or if they are self-employed.
These restrictions end on January 1, 2014, and all Romanians and Bulgarians will then have the same rights to work in the UK as British citizens.
Ministers have claimed that it is not legally possible to extend the restrictions beyond the end of this year because such action would breach European treaty agreements.
However, campaigners and many Conservative MPs fear that the relaxation in the rules will see up to 50,000 migrants moving to Britain from Bulgaria and Romania every year, undermining the government’s target to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”.
Last week the Prime Minister announced plans for new curbs on the entitlement of EU migrants to claim benefits in Britain. He called for a review of EU freedom of movement laws, in an attempt to put an end to “vast migrations” from poorer European countries to the West.
His proposals provoked a furious response from the European Commission, with one senior figure claiming Britain was becoming a “nasty country”, while four governments in Eastern Europe jointly attacked Mr Cameron’s plan.
However, there were growing signs that the Prime Minister’s initiative had failed to satisfy his own party’s desire for tougher limits on EU migrants.
By Friday evening, 54 Tory MPs had signed a Commons amendment calling for the existing restrictions on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria to be extended for another five years until 2019.
Nine MPs backed the amendment since Mr Cameron made his announcement, including usually moderate voices who are not regarded as “serial rebels”.
They hope that changing the law with the new amendment to ban long-term Romanian and Bulgarian workers would deter widespread migration in the years ahead.
The European Commission would be expected to take the UK to court in an attempt to overturn the new law, which would breach EU treaties. But the rebel MPs said that a court battle with Brussels could last years, delaying any fresh influx of migrants even longer.
Mr Hopkins, the Minister for Local Government, today lends his support to the MPs who are backing the rebel amendment.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, he said it was the “democratic right” of the MPs to demand that the government defies the European Union, adding: “I don’t disagree with them.”
Some residents in his Keighley constituency voted for the British National Party at previous elections because Labour had failed to tackle immigration, he said.
The Coalition must ensure that “the far right and extremists don’t have any traction” with voters. “Doing that means that we need to take sensible and robust positions around migration and how we actually address that,” he said.
“That’s why we should never shy away from some of the difficult conversations we need to have around migration.”
Mr Hopkins backed the Prime Minister’s call for a sweeping review of the EU’s free movement rules, which allow citizens to travel to work and live in any other EU country.
“I don’t think we should be shy as a nation of making sure that we are robust with our European colleagues if they push back on these issues.”
Mr Hopkins said the government should be urging Romanians and Bulgarians to “think before you travel”.
“What is available to you as an individual citizen to come here? Have you got a job to be able to make an economic contribution to our country? I think those are really important challenges that we should put in place.”
Sources said that other members of the government had privately expressed support for the rebel amendment, although Conservative whips have been warning them not to sign it.
Any ministers or ministerial aides voting for a rebel amendment which is opposed by the Cabinet would be expected to resign.
Dominic Raab, the MP for Esher and Walton, said it was “critical” that MPs were given the chance to debate the amendment, which he signed on Friday. “It’s right for Parliament to send a signal about this.”
Nigel Mills, the Conservative MP who masterminded the amendment, said there was “great concern” among his colleagues about a repeat of the previous influx of eastern European migrants, when there were no restrictions and one million moved to the UK.
The expected influx of tens of thousands of job-seekers from the two countries next year would be a major strain for the economy “when we have still got a lot of people desperate for work who can’t find it” in Britain, he said.
David Davis, Mr Cameron’s former shadow home secretary, who added his name to the amendment in the past week, said Romanians and Bulgarians would want to move to Britain to “triple their wages”.
“By deferring our own influx [of Romanians and Bulgarians] by a couple of years, we would not be the main attraction. They would go somewhere else,” he said.
Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP for Clacton, said the government must “see common sense” and accept the amendment.
He said he was “very doubtful” that the Prime Minister’s proposed reforms to benefit rules and freedom of movement inside Europe would be adequate to prevent rising immigration.
Philip Hollobone, another MP backing the reform, said the Prime Minister’s plan to restrict benefits was “a step in the right direction” but both the government and Labour were failing to listen to the “overwhelming” view of the public, “which is that we don’t want to open our borders to Romania and Bulgaria”.
The campaign comes as research, due to be published at a debate at the Guildhall in the City of London next week, discloses widespread concerns among British businesses over the scale of EU immigration.
A poll, commissioned by consultants Lansons and Cambre, and conducted by Opinium Research, questioned senior executives from 274 British businesses of varying sizes.
It found that 54 per cent of executives thought EU membership had a negative impact on immigration to the UK.
While more businesses were positive than negative about the benefits of EU membership as a whole, 38 per cent said that the British economy would be better if the UK quit the EU, compared to 31 per cent who believed it would be worse after a British exit.
More than two-thirds – some 68 per cent – of businesses said they would support different levels of EU membership.
Business executives were split on whether they would vote to stay inside the EU. If a referendum were held, 45 per cent said they would vote to leave the EU and 45 per cent said they would vote for Britain to remain a member.