Hilary Benn deepens Labour immigration row with call for free movement controls

Posted On: 
12th December 2016

Labour splits over immigration burst to the fore again this morning after another senior MP said there should be border controls with the EU after Brexit.

Brexit Select Committee chair Hilary Benn has backed EU immigration controls, while Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott fights against such a move
Credit: 
PA Images

Hilary Benn, the chair of the Brexit Select Committee and former frontbencher, argued the 52% who voted to leave the EU “sent a message” about ending the free movement of people.

It comes amid a brewing Labour war on the issue, with leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott opposed to curbing immigration from the EU.

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Mr Benn, who’s sacking by Mr Corbyn famously triggered the mass revolt by MPs in June, said he had “accepted the argument” for stopping the free flow of people.

“It’s clear the 52% sent a message about controls of free movement,” he told Sky News this morning.

“But a lot of people I met who were voting for Leave during the referendum said: ‘Look we just want some control - it’s not that we are arguing there should be no continued migration from the European Union’.”

He added: “I think there should be [controls]. There is a debate going on in the nation, there is a debate going on in the Conservative party, there is a debate going on in the Labour party. But I accept that argument that there should be.”

But just yesterday Ms Abbott said it would be “wrong” to quit the single market in Brexit negotiations in exchange for controlling EU immigration, arguing the economy should come first.

In recent weeks she has warned the party against becoming “Ukip-lite” amid calls from MPs in Leave-supporting areas to back curbs. 

Former shadow home secretary Andy Burnham last week branded Labour support for free movement “inherently discriminatory” and said it was “undermining the cohesion” of the UK.

Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has said net migration to the UK must be reduced, provoking a rebuke from Ms Abbott, who argued: "You cannot pluck figures out of thin air."

She said last month: "We can’t fight and win an election in 2020 as Ukip-lite. The idea that moving right on immigration in post-industrial Britain will save us seats is I think misconceived.

"It is absolutely fair to say that on doorsteps colleagues are finding people complaining about immigration, but it is simply not the case that immigration has driven down wages, or that immigration has created the insecurity or instability they perceive."

But Ian Austin, one of many prominent Labour MPs who back controls, has labelled Ms Abbott’s stance “offensive nonsense” and a “disastrous" electoral strategy.