Jeremy Corbyn has said he would want his government to allow “a great deal of movement” of people, in a sign Labour would look to keep a liberal immigration regime with Europe if Brexit goes ahead.
The Labour leader stopped short of saying free movement would be allowed to continue in its current form, but argued for immigration to help with shortages in the NHS and for an expansion of the rights of migrants to bring family members to the UK.
Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, he said: “A lot of EU nationals have made their homes in this country and made a massive contribution to our society. A lot of British people lie in different parts of the EU and many of those families have been through unbelievable stress. So they absolutely must have the right to remain and bring their families here.
“Also, there are also huge economic demands. There are 40,000 nurse vacancies in the NHS, partly because so many EU nationals have left. We have a shortage of doctors. We cannot exist in isolation.
“Therefore, there has to be migration into Britain in order to maintain our economy and our services. That will be reflected in our policy that you see on Thursday.”
Pressed again on whether free movement would continue, Corbyn said: “There will be a lot of movement.”
The party’s 2017 manifesto said free movement would end at the point of Brexit. It is possible that this election’s manifesto could make a similar statement while saying Labour would want it to be replaced by a regime that it is still very close to the current arrangements, making sure that expanded rights of family reunion are part of the offer.
A motion passed by Labour conference argued for the UK to “maintain and expand” free movement, which its organisers intended to mean an expansion of free movement to apply to countries across the world.
However, Corbyn argued the movers of the motion only meant an expansion of family reunion rights.
“I agree with the principle there has to be the right of joining your spouse or whatever in this country,” he said.
The Tories have tried to make immigration a battleground issue, arguing the Labour conference motion would mean open borders and immigration of 840,000 to the UK.
Labour’s manifesto, due to be published on Thursday, will make no such commitment to open borders and is likely to say that any new immigration regime with the EU would be negotiable as part of a Labour-led deal. If the UK voted to stay in the EU in a second referendum, then free movement would obviously continue.
The Conservatives gave more details of their own plans for a post-Brexit immigration regime on Sunday, saying they would want migrants to be treated equally wherever they come from in the world, based on their skills.
Under the Tory plans, the vast majority of immigrants would have to have a job, apart from highly skilled scientists and entrepreneurs. The Conservatives would also restrict access to benefits for both EU and non-EU nations so that migrants would have to wait five years before getting them. The Tories would stop child benefit being sent abroad to support children who do not live in the UK and increase the annual cost for new migrants of accessing NHS treatment to £625.
Asked about the Conservatives’ immigration proposals, the security minister, Brandon Lewis, told Sky: “Anybody who’s already here and is part of the EU settled status scheme, their rights are protected, they are absolutely clearly protected and in place.
“This will be for new people coming from the EU once we’ve left the European Union under a future immigration system.”
Lewis also stressed that the party would not be setting “arbitrary” targets for the level of migration but it would want overall levels to fall.