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Tom Watson: EU free movement rules could be changed in future

Published 14/06/2016

Ed Balls is among 28 Labour politicians and trade unionists warning the public sector will be hit if a vote for Brexit results in a recession
Ed Balls is among 28 Labour politicians and trade unionists warning the public sector will be hit if a vote for Brexit results in a recession

The European Union's free movement rules could be changed in future because of concerns about immigration, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has indicated, as the party launched an effort to persuade its wavering voters to back the Remain cause.

Mr Watson insisted that a decision to stay in the EU on June 23 would not mean the end of the reform agenda in the bloc as he acknowledged many Labour voters viewed immigration as an issue.

His comments came as party leader Jeremy Corbyn warned that the NHS will be at risk if the country votes to leave the European Union as h e pleaded for his party's supporters and trade unionists to back the Remain cause.

Mr Corbyn said Labour would be making "the strongest case we can" for a Remain win on June 23 following criticism about his level of involvement in the campaign.

With another opinion poll showing a lead for the Leave camp, both sides know that winning the support of Labour voters could prove crucial to the outcome of the referendum.

Mr Watson said immigration was the issue which had been the backdrop to every election in Britain over the last decade.

"Woe betide politicians that don't listen to what voters tell them," he told the BBC.

He added: " I think we have to reassure people that if they vote Remain on Thursday June 23, that isn't the end of the reform package for Europe. You know, I think a future Europe will have to look at things like the free movement of labour rules."

Mr Watson also urged David Cameron to push for a fund to target support at communities where public services were being stretched as a result of immigration.

He added that immigration was also an issue in other EU countries and the way to address it was to retain the UK's seat at the negotiating table.

"It seems to me this just isn't a phenomenon that affects the United Kingdom. It's European-wide. And if we want to change the rules on the free movement of labour, you have to be in the European Union to do that," he said.

"And I would imagine that a future UK government, when it comes to the next iteration of reform in Europe, will have to engage in that process."

Asked if a Labour administration would suggest a control on the numbers coming to the UK, he said: " I think it's very likely that a Labour government would want to reform the European Union and yes, if we get to a general election in 2020, of course we would have to listen to our voters.

"They're giving us a pretty clear signal in this referendum, and I think we should be listening very clearly to what they're telling us."

Mr Watson urged Labour voters not to use the referendum "as a way of punishing David Cameron" because "the stakes are too high".

Mr Corbyn used his speech at the TUC headquarters in London to say he was "proud" of the 52,000 EU workers in the NHS as he attacked the Leave camp's rhetoric on immigration.

"The NHS could not afford to lose 52,000 dedicated professionals and still deliver the service we need. They should think about these things before they shoot their mouths off in the way that they do."

Mr Corbyn joined with trade union leaders to take on the Brexit campaign over the future of the NHS after Brexit.

Vote Leave has promised to increase funding for the NHS using the money saved from no longer contributing to the Brussels budget.

But Mr Corbyn said Vote Leave's central claim about the £350 million it says goes to Brussels was an "outright lie", and their spending pledges had been "magically funded".

The Labour leader labelled Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage "wolves in sheep's clothing" as he claimed some of the most prominent Brexit campaigners had called for changes which would erode the health service's basic principle of universal free care.

In a speech during which he condemned Tory policies which had left the NHS in "crisis", he warned that Brexit would hit the funding available for the health service by around £10 billion.

At the event, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady launched a bitter attack on the Leave campaign as a group of "fibbers, fakes and phonies", while Unison chief Dave Prentis said "the future of our NHS is on the line" in the EU vote.

Mr Corbyn used an appearance alongside members of his shadow cabinet to warn that the "bonfire of regulations" promised by the Brexit camp could damage workers' rights.

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