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David Cameron has announced a dramatic clampdown on immigration of skilled migrants from outside Europe, prompting frustration from business groups, which have warned that the proposed measures would hamper growth.

Unveiling the strategy on Wednesday, the prime minister said it had been “too easy” in the past for businesses to recruit from overseas, undermining those in Britain “who want to work hard and do the right thing”.

He has asked the government’s independent immigration advisers to look for ways to restrict skilled migration to professions in which there are “genuine” skills gaps, and tighten the use of intra-company transfers, which allow employers to bring staff to the UK from overseas branches for a fixed time period.

His comments come weeks after official statistics showed that net migration had risen to 318,000 in the year to 2014, the second-highest figure on record. This is more than three times the Conservatives’ target of “tens of thousands”.

The inflow of non-EU immigrants seeking work in Britain rose significantly to 68,000 in 2014, from 44,000 the previous year. While Theresa May, home secretary, has capped skilled workers from outside Europe at 20,700 a year, the number entering via intra-company transfers is not subject to restrictions.

Although the number coming from within the EU has risen, it is far harder for the government to limit this without fundamental changes to freedom of movement rules, which would require treaty change in Brussels.

Under the coalition government, Ms May’s attempts to cut immigration frequently met with opposition from Vince Cable, the former Lib Dem business secretary. With a slim majority the Tories are free to enact more radical changes.

Mr Cameron asked the migration advisers to consider other measures, including an extra levy on skilled worker visas to fund UK apprenticeships.

He proposed limits on the length of time individual sectors can claim to have a skills shortage, which allows them to recruit outside the EU. Proposals to raise salary thresholds for skilled worker visas are to be fast-tracked in time for implementation in the autumn.

Katja Hall, deputy director-general of the CBI, the employers’ organisation, told the Financial Times that targeting non-EU skilled migrants, who accounted for just 0.066 per cent of the UK labour market, was “not the answer”.

“We are concerned about proposals to cut skilled migration from outside the EU,” she said. “These workers who are coming in under the cap represent the most valuable form of economic migration.”

Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors, said proposals to increase the cost of visas represented “essentially a tax on employing people from abroad”.

“This seems particularly odd given how dependent the UK economy is on international skills and expertise,” he said. “The prime minister is absolutely right to focus on upskilling the domestic workforce, but there’s no quick fix and it could appear misguided to risk harming the economy today in the hope of seeing results a decade down the line.”

Letter in response to this article:

No surprise that business wants skilled migrants / From Ursula Starkie

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