LONDON Prime Minister Theresa May distanced herself on Wednesday from remarks by a junior minister who had suggested Britain was considering introducing an annual 1,000-pound "immigration skills charge" after Brexit on every skilled worker from an EU member state recruited by a British employer.
The idea had drawn sharp condemnation from a prominent employers' group, the opposition Liberal Democrats and the European Parliament's point man on Brexit.
Immigration minister Robert Goodwill had told a parliamentary committee that a skills levy was due to come into force in April for non-EU workers, and that it had been suggested the government could extend it to skilled EU workers.
But May's spokeswoman said he had been misinterpreted.
"He seems to have been misinterpreted and those comments taken out of context," she told reporters. "What he said was there are a number of things that some people may suggest could be the way forward.
"At no point did he say it is on the agenda. It is not on the government's agenda."
Britons voted by 52 to 48 percent in a referendum last June to leave the European Union after a campaign in which the Brexit camp argued for tighter controls on immigration than are allowed under the EU's rules on the free movement of people.
The Institute of Directors (IoD), an employers' organisation, said earlier the suggested levy would hit businesses dependent on skills from abroad.
"This tax will only damage jobs growth at a time when many businesses are living with uncertainty," said Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills at the IoD.
"They simply cannot endure the double whammy of more restriction and then, if they do succeed in finding the right candidate, the prospect of an extra charge."
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, now the European parliament's representative in the Brexit process, had called the proposal "shocking".
"Imagine, just for a moment, what the UK headlines would be, if the EU proposed this for UK nationals?" he wrote on Twitter.
The Liberal Democrats, a pro-EU party that was in coalition with the ruling Conservatives between 2010 and 2015, called Goodwill's suggestion "idiotic".
In October, interior minister Amber Rudd raised the idea of making companies publish the number of foreign workers they employed, but that proposal was dropped after a public outcry.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout, Ritvik Carvalho, William James and Kylie MacLellan, editing by Ralph Boulton)