EU nationals of all skill levels will be allowed to enter Britain after Brexit for up to a year at a time under a new visa regime intended to reconcile Prime Minister Theresa May’s promise to take back control of immigration with business concerns about recruitment.
The new temporary visa is designed to act as a “safety valve” for employers adjusting to the end of free movement for EU nationals, but failed to win round business groups worried about increased bureaucracy and a rapid turnover of short-term workers.
The plans were revealed in a long-awaited white paper on immigration, which was published on Wednesday after being delayed more than a year.
Sajid Javid, home secretary, told the Financial Times the new system would “focus on the skills we need and welcome those who bring the most benefit to the country”. He added his department would spend the next 12 months consulting employers to ensure that the new system “supports the UK’s economy, is business-friendly and delivers control”.
But the CBI, the leading business lobby, said the new proposals would be a “sucker punch” for companies across the country, making people and regions poorer.
At present the proposals are intended to take effect after free movement to and from the EU ends in 2020-22, but if Britain leaves the bloc without a deal free movement could end much earlier.
In a concession to business concerns, the white paper suggests a “transitional” visa that would run until at least 2025, allowing EU migrants and those from “low-risk” non-EU countries to enter the UK without a job offer for up to a year.
Such measures will ease worries about an immediate “cliff edge” for workers in sectors such as construction, hospitality and retail after the end of the Brexit transition period. But they are also likely to increase the administrative burden on migrants and mean that employers will no longer be able to rely on a long-term, low-skilled workforce.
The white paper softens initial proposals put forward by the government’s independent immigration advisers that would have set a minimum salary threshold of £30,000 for migrants to enter as “highly skilled workers”. The threshold will now be put out to consultation following last-minute Cabinet wrangling in which chancellor Philip Hammond and business secretary Greg Clark argued that £30,000 was too high.
The Treasury and business departments are still dismayed about the increased red tape and economic disruption the immigration rule change implies. But the two economic departments are satisfied they have seen off some of the tougher curbs favoured by the prime minister.
Cabinet critics of Mrs May’s approach to immigration comfort themselves that the prime minister might no longer be in office by the time the white paper has been subject to an extended consultation and is turned into policy.
Further Cabinet disagreement centred around the migration target, with Mrs May failing to maintain an explicit reference in the white paper to her pledge to cut net immigration to “tens of thousands”. The home secretary prefers instead to refer to “sustainable” levels.
Mr Javid refused to repeat the “tens of thousands” mantra in a BBC interview, but when Mrs May was asked on Wednesday if it remained the government’s intention to cut migration to that level, she replied: “Yes.”
The home secretary, who was sitting alongside Mrs May in the House of Commons, later failed to attend an airport photo-call with the prime minister.
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Oxford-based Migration Observatory, called the white paper “one of the most fundamental redesigns of immigration policy” in almost half a century.
Ms Sumption said the transitional visa scheme would “rely heavily on short-term migration”, which she said would result in employers recruiting “a rotating pool of newly arriving workers to fill low-paid positions”.
“This is also the first time since 2010 that the government has proposed significantly liberalising, rather than just restricting, some migration flows — specifically skilled migration from outside the EU,” she added.
Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the CBI, was less welcoming of the plans, saying: “A new immigration system must command public confidence and support the economy. These proposals would achieve neither.”
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