New immigration rules introduced after Brexit must continue to bring numbers down but in a way that does not damage the UK economy, Theresa May has said.
Speaking on a trip to the US, the prime minister said ending the free movement of people from the EU was “non-negotiable” in the Brexit talks.
Public concerns over immigration levels had to be recognised, she said.
On Monday, the cabinet agreed that EU citizens should face the same migration rules as those from elsewhere.
Theresa May’s ministers unanimously supported a system based on skills rather than nationality, following a lengthy meeting in Downing Street.
- The detail of Cabinet discussion on immigration
The prime minister has repeatedly vowed to end unlimited immigration from Europe after Brexit but some fear that any ban on low-skilled EU migrants may damage business.
Speaking en route to New York for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Mrs May said the interests of businesses and the concerns of the public had to be balanced.
“People voted to bring an end to free movement and we will do that,” she said.
“As we look at the future proposals for our immigration rules what we want to do is to ensure that we are recognising the concerns that people have about immigration; that we are working to continue to bring net migration down but obviously that we do that in a way that is good for the British economy.”
Monday’s cabinet agreement came after a presentation from the MAC chairman, Prof Alan Manning, at a lengthy meeting.
According to one source, the principle was agreed that the UK would not show bias towards immigrants from any one part of the world over another when granting access to work.
However, one cabinet source told the BBC the agreement did not constitute a firm decision and a government source said there could be “light touch migration” rules for EU nationals as part of any wider Brexit trade deal.
The government does not call this “preferential” treatment because a similar arrangement could be struck with, for example, the US as part of a UK-US trade deal.
The EU’s principle of freedom of movement currently allows people from the European Economic Area – all EU countries, as well as Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – plus Switzerland, to travel and work within the area without visas, regardless of skills.
Anyone wanting to move to the UK from outside the EU, as well as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, to work or study needs to apply for one of a number of visas.
These range from Tier 1, preserved for investors and “exceptional talent”, to Tier 5 visas for short-term voluntary and educational programmes.
The two most common are the Tier 2 skilled worker visas and Tier 4 student visas. Currently, no Tier 3 – unskilled labour – visas are being given out.
Some of these visas allow people to apply to bring dependants such as children and partners.
Visas work on a points-based system and the criteria have got tougher in recent years.
For example, for a Tier 2 “experienced skilled worker” visa, people now need to be paid at least £30,000 to apply, up almost £10,000 from 2011. People get more points for higher salaries or if their job is on the list of shortage occupations.
Most visas come with other conditions, including knowledge of English, the need for a sponsor and agreeing not to claim benefits for a period of time.
Last week, the Migration Advisory Committee, an independent public body which advises ministers on migration issues, called for the annual limit on the number of high-skilled workers from outside the EU granted permission to work to be scrapped.
Currently set at 20,700 a year, the cap – imposed by Mrs May when at the Home Office – has resulted in thousands of IT specialists and NHS candidates being denied visas.
The UK is due to withdraw from the European Union on 29 March next year, although an “implementation period” lasting until 31 December 2020 has been agreed as part of the proposed Brexit deal being negotiated between the UK and the EU.
In that transition period, EU citizens arriving in the UK would enjoy the same rights and guarantees as those who arrive beforehand. The same would apply to UK expats on the continent.
It remains unclear what would happen in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit, as the transition period would not then happen and the new migration system would, government sources say, have to be “tapered in” because it would not be ready by March.