Theresa May defended the idea of new controls on EU nationals in the wake of a leaked document outlining proposed tough post-Brexit immigration plans, saying they would help protect UK wages.
Speaking at the first prime minister’s questions since the summer recess, May did not refer directly to the Home Office document leaked to the Guardian, but repeated her insistence that migration has depressed the wages of lower-paid workers.
May said: “There is a reason for wanting to ensure that we can control migration. It is because of the impact that net migration can have on people, on access to services, on infrastructure. But crucially, it often hits those at the lower end of the income scale hardest.”
The subject had been raised by Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP’s Westminster group, who urged May to admit that immigration is “essential to the strength of the UK economy, as well as enhancing our diversity and cultural fabric”.
In reply, the prime minister argued that that controls were needed in part to prevent the wages of unskilled British workers being undercut. “We continue to believe as a government that it’s important to have net migration at sustainable levels – we believe that to be the tens of thousands – because of the impact particularly it has on people at the lower end of the income scale in depressing their wages.”
Blackford accused the prime minister of “dancing to the tune of her rightwing backbenchers”.
Those comments apart, Conservative ministers were keen to avoid discussion of the embarrassing leak on Wednesday, which laid bare government thinking about one of the most controversial aspects of post-Brexit policy.
Defence secretary Michael Fallon was the lone government voice, promising the government would pursue a “balanced” migration policy, when he was challenged about the paper as he toured broadcast studios launching a new shipbuilding strategy. At prime minister’s questions May was not asked directly about the leak by Jeremy Corbyn, with Labour keen to play down its own differences over future migration policy.
May’s former cabinet colleagues – including George Osborne and Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, who was business secretary in the coalition government – have repeatedly identified the prime minister as the driving force behind the Conservatives’ policy of bearing down on immigration.
Cable said on Wednesday that May repeatedly suppressed evidence on the benefits of foreign workers. “When I was business secretary there were up to nine studies that we looked at that took in all the academic evidence. It showed that immigration had very little impact on wages or employment. But this was suppressed by the Home Office under Theresa May, because the results were inconvenient.
“I remember it vividly. Overwhelmingly it has been the case that overseas workers have been complimentary rather than competitive to British workers,” he said.
Pressed about the immigration leak by journalists, May’s spokesman insisted he would not comment; but stressed the government would be likely to phase in any new regime after a transitional period – one of the least controversial points of the leaked paper.
“I have said that free movement – the principle of free movement – will end in 2018,” he said. But he added: “We are looking at implementation in a number of areas to ensure the smoothest possible exit and to give business, and everybody else, certainty.”
Asked whether that could include changes to free movement, he said: “Immigration is one of the areas where we would be looking at an implementation period, yes.”