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Brexit Secretary's EU border controls comments 'his view' says No 10

Published 06/09/2016

Theresa May ruled out the points-based immigration policy championed by Brexit campaigners
Theresa May ruled out the points-based immigration policy championed by Brexit campaigners

Theresa May has distanced herself from Brexit Secretary David Davis's suggestion that it is "very improbable" the UK can regain control over its own borders while remaining part of the European single market.

Despite the comment being made on Monday from the despatch box in the Commons - where ministers are expected to speak on behalf of the Government - the Prime Minister's spokeswoman said Mr Davis was expressing a personal opinion rather than official policy.

And she said Mrs May maintained an "open mind" about what could be secured from negotiations with the remaining 27 member states under Article 50 of the European Union treaties, and planned to be "ambitious" in her stance.

The spokeswoman also played down reports that EU migrants will need to secure a job before they are allowed to move to Britain under post-Brexit arrangements, insisting that the Government was looking at "various" options for imposing additional controls.

In his first update to the House of Commons on progress in preparing for withdrawal from the EU, Mr Davis was asked whether the UK could remain a member of the single market - something which is regarded as vital by many members of the business community, who fear tariffs on exported goods and services if Britain is excluded.

He responded: "This Government is looking at every option. The simple truth is, if a requirement of membership is giving up control of our borders, I think that makes it very improbable."

Asked at a regular Westminster media briefing whether Mrs May agreed with Mr Davis's assessment, the PM's spokeswoman said: "He is setting out his view - his view - that it is improbable. The work on this is ongoing.

"The PM wants to have the work under way. She recognises that people have differing views. That's why we need to do the work that there is. All of this is going to have to be negotiated with our European partners, but we should go after the best deal we can."

Asked whether the fact that Mr Davis was speaking at the despatch box meant his comments reflected Government policy, the spokeswoman said: "Saying something is probable or improbable I don't think is necessarily a policy."

The spokeswoman said that, in a press conference in China on Monday, Mrs May had made clear that she was approaching the negotiations "with an open mind and with a view that we shouldn't be taking a model off the shelf, we should be working through what the issues are for Britain, what we want from this relationship and addressing it".

Mrs May made clear the UK will be "ambitious" in negotiations, said the spokeswoman, adding: "This is a negotiation. It's not always the right approach to start putting all your cards on the table at the start."

During her visit to China, the Prime Minister ruled out the introduction of an Australian-style points-based system for immigration policy, saying it was ''not a silver bullet'' to reduce the numbers coming to the UK.

But her spokeswoman poured cold water on suggestions that she has instead plumped for a work permit system which would require EU nationals to secure a job offer before coming to settle in the UK.

Asked about the reports, the spokeswoman said: "I would point you to what the Prime Minister has said, which is that a clear message from the referendum was that British people want to have the ability to control migration from the EU into the UK, that there are various ways in which you can do that, and it's something that the Government is looking at at the moment and will be coming forward in due course with proposals.

"Work is under way at the moment to look at various ways."

Immigration was not on the agenda at a meeting of Cabinet which Mrs May chaired in 10 Downing Street immediately after returning from China early on Tuesday morning.

Labour MP Pat McFadden, commenting on behalf of the Open Britain campaign, said: "David Davis's statement didn't look good yesterday and it looks even worse today.

"It is right that Number 10 should not give up on membership of the single market and no surprise that they had to slap down Mr Davis after his first public outing yesterday.

"These negotiations should not begin by voluntarily giving up membership of the single market which, as we have seen in statements from the Japanese Government this week, helps secure valuable investment and jobs in the UK.

"The Government must not let their immigration policy dictate their economic and trade policy - both must be considered together in the upcoming talks with the EU."

Scottish National Party Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins said that the Government was " descending into farce" over Brexit and called for ministers urgently to provide "a clear and concise plan".

"It is ridiculous that after a full two months waiting to get even the barest bones of what their Brexit plans are, ministers are still 'just expressing opinions'," said Mr Gethins.

"If the Brexit Secretary doesn't know what Government policy on Brexit is, then who does?

''There is clearly utter confusion at the heart of the UK Government and on a matter so desperately important - with businesses and people across the UK as a whole looking for some degree of clarity - that is deeply worrying."

Meanwhile, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox announced the creation of a UK-Australia working group to focus on "scoping out" a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries.

It comes after Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called for a trade deal to be set up as a matter of urgency.

In a joint statement with Australian trade minister Steven Ciobo, Dr Fox said the working group of senior officials will meet twice a year, with the first meeting in early 2017 in Australia.

Its agenda will also include "trade policy issues of mutual interest" such as World Trade Organisation processes and potential new trade blocs including other countries.

"This initiative reflects a strong political commitment by Australia and the UK to take a leadership role in advocating for global trade liberalisation and reform," the pair said.

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