LONDON (Reuters) - The British government plans to significantly reduce immigration from outside the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday, teeing up a confrontation with business groups who fret their supply of skilled workers will be cut.
Cameron is under pressure on the issue after promising but failing to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” and immigration was one of voters’ top concerns ahead of last month’s national election, which saw him re-elected.
Net migration to Britain was 318,000 in 2014, the highest since 2005, official figures showed last month.
Cameron has already set out plans to discourage EU migration as part of his efforts to renegotiate Britain’s ties with Brussels ahead of a membership referendum. But the EU’s freedom of movement rules mean he has limited room for manoeuvre, while he has a free hand when it comes to non-EU migration.
“In the past it has been frankly too easy for some businesses to bring in workers from overseas ... We need to do more to change that,” Cameron told parliament on Wednesday.
“The home secretary (interior minister) has written to the Migration Advisory Committee asking them to report back on how to significantly reduce work-related migration from outside Europe.”
Cameron said proposals included restricting work visas to only highly specialist workers and areas with a “genuine” skill shortage and limiting the length of time a sector can claim to have a skills shortage.
The government is also looking at introducing a levy on businesses who recruit foreign workers, which would be used to boost training of British workers, as well as raising the salary thresholds for skilled worker visas to prevent businesses using foreign workers to undercut wages.
Business lobby group the Institute for Directors (IoD) criticised the steps as a “tax on employing people from abroad”, saying the economy relied heavily on drawing on international skills.
“It could appear misguided to risk harming the economy today in the hope of seeing results a decade down the line,” IoD Director General Simon Walker said in a statement.
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Andrew Osborn