LONDON: A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons in central London. – AFP

LONDON: Britain’s government yesterday faced a backlash over its new post-Brexit immigration plans, which are designed to cut “cheap Labor from Europe” in favor of high-skilled English speakers. The points-based system is due to start on January 1, 2021, and was billed as “taking back control” of Britain’s borders – a key demand of anti-EU campaigners in the divisive Brexit debate.

Interior minister Priti Patel called the sweeping reforms “firm and fair” and said it would make it easier for higher-skilled workers to get visas, and harder for low-skilled migrants to do so. “We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labor from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation,” she said. The plans are the biggest change to immigration policy in 50 years and will go before parliament, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a comfortable majority.

But the Conservative government was accused of failing to assess the impact of the reforms on the economy, while businesses heavily reliant on foreign labor questioned the feasibility of the policy. The main opposition Labor party said some sectors’ reliance on foreign workers would force the government to make numerous exceptions, rendering the new rules “meaningless”. Its home affairs spokesman Diana Abbott called it a “salary threshold system”, which would hit the already hard-pressed state-run National Health Service and social care sector.

“If they are all short-term visas, only the most desperate workers will come, and will have the effect of creating a two-tier workforce,” Abott said. Her opposite number at the smaller Liberal Democrats said the policy was “based on xenophobia, not the social and economic needs of our country”. “Too many businesses are already struggling to hire the workers they need. Now the Tories want to stop them recruiting all but the highest-paid employees from abroad,” said Christine Jardine.

Britain left the EU after 47 years of membership on January 31. EU rules are still in place until the end of the year as London and Brussels thrash out a new trade deal. But Jardine and others warned that 10 months was not enough time for businesses to prepare for the end to free movement of EU nationals to other member states. They warned of potential staff shortages, as well as chaos and confusion through additional red tape.

‘Reduce immigration’
The plans do not affect more than 3.2 million EU citizens who have applied to stay in Britain under the official settlement scheme. The proposals require each foreign worker to earn 70 points to be eligible and a set number of points for each qualification or skill. A maximum 20 points are awarded for prospective migrants who will earn at least £25,600 ($33,325 or 30,820 euros) and no points for those who will make the required minimum of £20,480.

Twenty points also go to people with an “appropriate skill level” and another 20 for those who speak English “at required level”. Britain’s current salary threshold for skilled migrants is £30,000. People who have jobs “in a shortage qualification” will also earn 20 points, and either 10 or 20 points for doctorate degrees in various fields. “Applicants will be able to ‘trade’ characteristics such as their specific job offer and qualifications against a lower salary,” the government proposal says.

Overall, the government said the aim is to “reduce overall migration numbers” – another demand of Brexit supporters – but did not give a figure on the expected fall. The Migration Advisory Committee said last month the end to freedom of movement could have “zero effect” on providing more jobs for British workers.

‘Dishonest’ UK tweet
Meanwhile, EU officials yesterday expressed irritation at a combative tweet from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office claiming Brussels was shifting objectives in upcoming trade talks. One official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, described the post from the Number 10 press office as “deeply false, dishonest”. The offending tweet republished a two-year-old slide used by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier displaying the trade options available to the UK according to various negotiating red lines.

Above it, Johnson’s press office wrote: “In 2017 the EU showed on their own slide that a Canada-style FTA (free-trade agreement) was the only available relationship for the UK. Now they say it’s not on offer after all. Michel Barnier what’s changed?” The tweet referred to the biggest point of contention in the negotiations: the EU’s insistence that Britain has to hew to the bloc’s labor, environmental and tax standards – to ensure a “level playing field” – if it wants a free-trade pact.

Although that demand has been made in EU documents and in a non-binding political declaration Britain signed last year, the UK is balking at having to abide by EU rules now that it is no longer part of the bloc. “It’s wrong to say we’ve changed our position. It has always been very clear that a free-trade deal is linked to a level playing field,” the EU official said, adding that the UK tweet was received “very negatively” in Brussels.

Hardening tone
Another official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said “this tweet is more meant for the internal debate in the United Kingdom,” where several business sectors want to keep close trading ties with the EU. That official pointed out that each FTA is different, and Britain’s situation was unique because it was within Europe with an economy deeply intertwined with its EU neighbors. “Imports from Canada, Japan and South Korea together are less than UK imports,” the official noted. Britain left the EU at the end of last month but enjoys a transition period to the end of this year, during which it is allowed to trade like an EU member. – Agencies