Patel warns firms' immigration demands would 'recreate free movement'

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Britain's home secretary Priti Patel. (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

Britain’s home secretary Priti Patel has brushed off business concerns about the government’s planned clampdown on low-paid migrant workers.

Patel warned business leaders their calls for special treatment for certain sectors would end up recreating free movement, which the government has vowed to end for EU migrants.

The government faced a chorus of criticism from across industry when it unveiled its plans to shake up Britain’s post-Brexit immigration policy last week.

Business groups, union leaders and opposition MPs have warned of staff shortages in sectors with high numbers of EU migrant workers, including care, construction, hospitality and the food and drink industry.

Some business leaders had expected the government to introduce temporary visas for low-skilled or low-paid migrant workers to help sectors reliant on migrant labour.

Read more: UK government ‘can’t wait 15 years’ for Brits to replace migrants in care jobs

But Patel doubled down on defending the government’s position in a statement to parliament on Monday, saying a new points-based system would prioritise high-skilled workers.

She also claimed Labour had “closed their ears” to the referendum and 2019 election results through its opposition to more curbs on immigration.

She told the Commons immigration had brought “huge benefits” to the UK, but said the new system would focus on “bringing talented people irrespective of their country of origin.”

“Our points-based system will provide a simple effective and flexible arrangement to give top priority to the skilled workers we need to boost our economy and support our brilliant public services,” she said.

Applicants will need a job offer from an approved sponsor and at an appropriate skill level, as well as English-speaking skills, she said.

They will also generally need a salary of £25,600 ($33,137), but with exceptions for NHS workers, teachers and experienced workers on lower pay or without jobs but with valued skills.

Read more: UK to ‘end reliance on cheap labour’ with new immigration system

But she said: “No longer will employers be able to rely on cut-price EU workers. Instead we are calling on them rightly to invest in British people as well as investing in tech skills to improve productivity and join the UK government’s mission to level up on skills and economic growth across our country.”

She added that the system must be simple to work, ruling out “endless exemptions” for low-skilled workers. “We are not going to end free movement only to recreate it through other routes in name only,” she told MPs.

She also denied claims the government was treating care workers as “low-skilled,” urging firms to pay them enough to meet the new thresholds.

She added that Britain remained “open for business” despite the clampdown, with expanded routes for highly skilled and talented individuals from around the world.

But Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, warned last week the lack of a temporary low-skilled worker route “will be disastrous for the hospitality sector and the British people.”