UK to unveil post-Brexit immigration plan amid business fear
Pro and anti Brexit demonstrators wave their placards and flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Tuesday Dec. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
With 100 days until Britain leaves the European Union, the government was publishing long-awaited plans Wednesday for a post-Brexit immigration system that will end free movement of EU citizens to the U.K.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the proposals — Britain's biggest immigration changes in more than 40 years — would create a "skills-based immigration system built around the talent and expertise people can bring, rather than where they come from."
At present, all EU nationals can live and work in Britain under the bloc's free-movement rules, but that will end after the U.K. leaves in March. The government says that once a post-Brexit transition period ends, the same rules will apply to all immigrants regardless of where they come from.
The government is proposing no limit on the number of well-paid, skilled immigrants who can settle in Britain, but curbs on "low-skilled" workers.
The rules will not apply to more than 3 million EU citizens currently living in Britain. The government has said they can stay, even if the U.K. leaves the bloc without an agreement on future relations.
Immigration was a major factor behind Britain's 2016 vote to leave the EU, and Prime Minister Theresa May has made "taking back control of our borders" her key Brexit goal.
But that has put her at odds with many business leaders, and some members of her own Conservative government.
Big chunks of Britain's economy, from agriculture to health care, have come to depend on European workers — more than 1 million of whom have moved to Britain in the last 15 years. Businesses fear that choking off the flow of lower-skilled workers could lead to acute employee shortages.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers — an umbrella group for Britain's state-funded health care system — said the health sector was "deeply concerned" about the planned changes.
"High skills does not equal high pay," she told the BBC.
The government plans suggest setting a salary threshold that immigrants will have to meet in order to be given the right to settle in Britain. A figure of 30,000 pounds ($38,000) a year, recommended by an independent report earlier this year, is more than the starting salary for nurses, paramedics, junior doctors and many other professions.
Javid said the "exact threshold" would be decided after public consultation.
He also said the plan would not commit to reducing net immigration below 100,000 people a year — a longstanding goal of the Conservative government that it has never come close to meeting. Net immigration in the year to June was 273,000.
Javid said the plans would seek to reduce migration to "more sustainable levels," but would not set a specific target.
The government hopes the immigration plans will be seen as a sign that plans for Brexit are proceeding apace, but politically the process of leaving the EU is gridlocked and it remains unclear whether lawmakers will approve the divorce agreement May's government has negotiated with the EU.
On Tuesday, the government ramped up preparations for the possibility that the country could crash out of the bloc without a deal — putting 3,500 soldiers on standby and warning thousands of businesses and millions of households to get ready for disruption.
The EU was set Wednesday to publish documents on its own preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
Economists say a leaving without a deal risks plunging the British economy into recession and touching off chaos at the borders.
The government says its no-deal plans — which include chartering boats and stockpiling medicines — are a sensible precaution.
But opposition politicians accuse the government of trying to scare people into supporting May's Brexit deal. They say a no-deal Brexit must be avoided at all costs.
Many businesses agree. Britain's five leading business groups said in a joint statement that businesses "have been watching in horror" as political infighting made the prospect of a disorderly Brexit more likely.
Organizations including the British Chambers of Commerce and the Confederation of British Industry urged lawmakers to "return to their constituencies over Christmas and talk to their local business communities."
"We hope that they will listen and remember that when they return to Parliament, the future course of our economy will be in their hands," the groups said.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, and Danica Kirka in London, contributed to this story.