Immigration is set to become the latest flashpoint between the government and business this week as Boris Johnson prepares to drop a pledge to delay new restrictions on low-skilled workers coming into Britain after Brexit.
The immigration white paper, published in 2018 when Theresa May was prime minister, had proposed a two-year “time-limited route for temporary short-term workers” to come to the UK in response to pressure from employers.
But government officials said on Sunday that cabinet was expected to discuss plans this week with the “political desire to consider not having the transition,” although they stressed no final decision had been taken.
Since becoming prime minister, Mr Johnson has not indicated whether he would support the transition period sought by business, which fears that a new points-based immigration system would leave them with a skills shortage.
The business lobby wants the government to phase in the changes to the immigration rules over two years rather than suddenly implementing the new rules in January 2021.
Employers fear the immediate introduction of the government’s plans — which are broadly modelled on Australia’s points based immigration system — could lead to skills shortages in important industries.
Business leaders on Sunday said that they were concerned over the potential change in implementation of the new immigration rules, which had already been a worry given the importance of lower skilled workers to many parts of industry and services in the UK.
“At a time of critical skills shortages and substantial change, these proposals would add further barriers to firms accessing the staff they need,” said Jane Gratton, British Chambers of Commerce’ head of people policy.
Other business groups including the CBI declined to comment until proposals were published.
The latest potential flashpoint comes after Sajid Javid, the chancellor, warned businesses that the UK planned to diverge from EU rules after Brexit, prompting an angry backlash from industry, led by the automotive sector.
The main concern among employers is that the new system would make it much harder to employ EU workers in low-paid sectors such as food processing, construction and social care. The minimum annual salary for non-EU skilled worker visas is currently set at £30,000, but 76 per cent of EU workers in the UK earn less than this.
Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford university’s Migration Observatory, said the widespread belief among employers was that the transition period after Brexit would be extended beyond the end of this year and hence businesses would have had longer to adjust to the new immigration rules.
“But if the transition ends in December 2020, as Boris Johnson’s manifesto says, this would naturally mean a new immigration system in 2021 too. That’s always been the official government position, but not one that everyone took seriously,” Ms Sumption said.
Before the election the Tory government said it would introduce a visa aimed at ensuring the National Health Service could recruit enough doctors and nurses.
But Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers and deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned any new immigration system needed to take into consideration the need for support staff and social workers.
“The incoming immigration policy must allow health and social care to recruit from overseas at all levels, including care assistants and lower paid roles that currently are not protected by the shortage occupation list,” he said.
“It’s not just about attracting the brightest and the best,” said one business lobbyist. “Those earning under £30,00 are not taking jobs, they are addressing a genuine shortage in workers at that level. We want to see how the system can deal with that.”
Some parts of the UK service industry would be hit hard by a sudden change in the immigration policy. A quarter of the 3.2m people that work in the hospitality industry are non-British and around 12 per cent are EU citizens.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “A rushed change to a new managed immigration system will be extremely unhelpful to hospitality and businesses will need longer than 10 months to adapt to new rules.”
Ministers have already confirmed that they will set up a seasonal agricultural workers scheme to bring in fruit and vegetable pickers for six months during the harvest season, but other sectors have been told not to expect similar exemptions.
Additional reporting by Nic Fildes and Sarah Neville