Prime minister's post-Brexit immigration proposals a ‘wrong turn’

Experts pan Theresa May’s plans to curb low-skilled migration

Experts have warned of looming skills shortages, after the prime minister today revealed that post-Brexit immigration will prioritise ‘high-skilled’ migrants over their ‘low-skilled’ counterparts.

Theresa May also said the new immigration system will treat workers from the EU27 the same as workers from outside the bloc after the Brexit transition period completes on 31 December 2020. 

“It will be a skills-based system where it is workers’ skills that matter, not where they come from,” the prime minister said. “It will be a system that looks across the globe and attracts the people with the skills we need… The new skills-based system will make sure low-skilled immigration is brought down and set the UK on the path to reduce immigration to sustainable levels, as we promised.”

Under the new system, applicants would also need to meet a salary requirement. Those who successfully apply for high-skilled work will be entitled to bring their immediate family, but only if sponsored by future employers. 

However, Carolyn Fairbairn, Confederation of British Industry director-general, said: “The prime minister’s proposals for a new system have taken a wrong turn.”

She continued: “All skill levels matter to the UK economy. Today’s proposals risk worsening labour shortages, already serious in construction, hospitality and care. Restricting access to the workers the UK needs is self-defeating.”

Meanwhile, Dr Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, felt businesses’ reactions to the announcement would be “mixed”.

“Immigration policy is not just about the ‘best and brightest’, but straightforward access to the skills needed to help grow our economy,” he said. “The test of the government’s new immigration rules will be whether they let businesses access skills and talent quickly and easily when companies can demonstrate that they have been unable to hire or train the people they need here in the UK.”

Stephen Clarke, senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation, added: “Low-paying sectors with a large share of migrant workers, such as food manufacturing and hotels, are going to need to rethink not only exactly what they produce but their approach to recruitment, retention and, crucially, automation. More broadly, employers should also up their game on training and bringing harder-to-reach groups, like people with a disability or ill-health, into the labour market.”

The proposals to prioritise visas for high-skilled workers echoed those in last month’s government-commissioned Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report. That also recommended not giving preference to EU migrants over those from other parts of the world. 

It was reported last week that senior ministers had largely agreed to the report proposals. However, commentators warned the plans would cause staff shortages for employers in sectors which relied on low-skilled workers.

In particular, analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research revealed 75 per cent of EU nationals working full-time in the UK at the moment would not have been eligible to come and work in the country if the MAC proposals applied.

Home secretary Sajid Javid is expected to confirm the detail of the policy in his speech at the Conservative Party Conference later today. A white paper detailing how the new immigration system will work is expected to be published later this year, with an Immigration Bill due to be published early next year. 

May added that the government was also committed to “training up British people for the skilled jobs of the future”. 

The government has previously confirmed that EU citizens living in the UK, of which there are approximately three million, will be entitled to settled status, even in the event of a ‘no deal ‘Brexit