Keir Starmer (right) with Andrew Marr Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit minister, has claimed immigration is too high and called for it to be reduced during the UK’s departure from the European Union, despite the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ruling out any cap on arrivals.
In his first interview since being recruited to the shadow cabinet on Friday, the former director of public prosecutions appeared to disclose a different approach to migration controls to that proposed by his party leader in recent weeks.
The MP for Holborn and St Pancras, who has been touted as a future party leader, said the numbers of migrants should be reduced by tackling a skills shortage. He told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday: “There has been a huge amount of immigration over the last 10 years and people are understandably concerned about it.
“I think it should be reduced and it should be reduced by making sure we have the skills in this country that are needed for the jobs that need to be done.”
Asked if he accepted that limits on immigration would mean an end to free movement and therefore a departure from the EU’s tariff-free single market, Starmer said: “We have to be open to adjustments of the freedom of movement rules and how they apply to this country. We have to be shrewd and careful.”
His views seemingly contradict those of Corbyn who last month appeared to rule out a cut to immigration. The Labour leader told delegates at the annual party conference: “A Labour government will not offer false promises. We will not sow division or fan the flames of fear. We will instead tackle the real issues of immigration – and make the changes that are needed.”
Corbyn’s spokesman went further, confirming later: “He is not concerned about numbers,” and adding that rather than seeking controls on immigration, Labour would seek to mitigate its effects on low-paid workers by reintroducing a “migrant impact fund”.
In the interview, Starmer made clear that he accepted the leave vote in June but would challenge Theresa May’s plans not to put the terms for Brexit to parliament.
“The referendum is clear and has to be accepted. We can’t have a re-run of the questions put to the country earlier this year but there has to be democratic grip of the process. At the moment the PM is trying to do is manoeuvre without any scrutiny. That is why the terms on which we are going to negotiate absolutely have to be put to a vote in the house,” he said.
He made his comments after it was revealed former Labour leader Ed Miliband held discussions with pro-EU Tory MPs on Saturday, and was said to be considering tabling an urgent question in the Commons, demanding that May appear before parliament to explain its future role in Brexit decisions, when MPs return on Monday.
The SNP and the pro-EU Tory MPs Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry were also considering tabling questions, while former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, now the party’s Brexit spokesman, said it would be appalling if MPs did not vote on the detailed terms of Brexit, including the UK’s future relations with the single market.
Miliband told the Observer: “Having claimed that the referendum was about returning sovereignty to Britain, it would be a complete outrage if May were to determine the terms of Brexit without a mandate from parliament.
“There is no mandate for hard Brexit, and I don’t believe there is a majority in parliament for [it] either. Given the importance of these decisions for the UK economy … it has to be a matter for MPs.”
Starmer also challenged the language used by the home secretary, Amber Rudd, when proposing that firms should list the numbers of foreign workers they employ, but said that proposals themselves were neither xenophobic nor silly.
“What we shouldn’t do is fan the flames of division. I am sure you and many people watching this were appalled by the sort of language as ministers advocate a list of foreign workers,” he said.