EU citizens will no longer be given priority to live and work in Britain, in a radical overhaul of immigration policy after Brexit which Theresa May said “ends freedom of movement once and for all”.
The prime minister said high-skilled staff who want to live and work in Britain will be given priority while low-skilled immigration will be curbed, though the final terms are expected to be subject to the Brexit negotiations.
The announcement of the tough new system comes before a speech by the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a harsh critic of the prime minister’s Brexit plans, which had been expected to dominate the third day of the Conservative party’s conference in Birmingham.
“For the first time in decades, it will be this country that controls and chooses who we want to come here,” May said in a statement released overnight announcing the shake-up.
“It will be a skills-based system where it is workers’ skills that matter, not where they come from. It will be a system that looks across the globe and attracts the people with the skills we need.
“Crucially it will be fair to ordinary working people. For too long people have felt they have been ignored on immigration and that politicians have not taken their concerns seriously enough.”
May said the new system would reduce low-skilled immigration and bring net migration down to “sustainable levels”, a coded reference to the tens of thousands manifesto pledge that Conservatives have thus far been unable to meet.
The proposals follow a report from the government’s Migration Advisory Committee that recommended high-skilled workers are given priority over visa applications from low-skilled workers.
The government has said it intends to publish a white paper next year and a bill the following year, meaning it is highly likely MPs will not be given a vote on the legislation before the UK leaves the EU in March.
Downing Street said there would be “routes for short-stay business trips and tourists and for those who want to live and work for longer in the UK” as well as passport e-gates to make travelling faster for short-stay visitors.
The government said in-country security checks would be carried out to make operations faster at passport control, a similar system of prior authorisation to the US.
Applicants for working visas must meet a minimum salary threshold and have their families sponsored by their future employers.
May did not rule out visa relaxations as part of future trading deals, saying the “ability of people from trading partners to deliver services and student exchange programmes will form part of future trade agreements”.
The announcement received a mixed response from businesses with a spokesman for the British Chambers of Commerce saying companies needed to recruit from a pool of people with a wide range of skills.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the BCC, said: “Ministers must recognise that businesses in every corner of the UK are facing severe skills gaps at every level, and must be able to recruit great people from both here at home and from overseas. Immigration policy is not just about the ‘best and brightest’, but straightforward access to the skills needed to help grow our economy.
“Controlling immigration is one thing – but the government should also take this golden opportunity to drop arbitrary migration caps and targets, which give many of the very people we need the sense that the UK is closed for business.”