The UK’s new home secretary has taken aim at British businesses for offering too many jobs to international candidates, saying tougher curbs on hiring foreigners were needed to ensure they are not taking jobs from Britons.
In her first major speech in her new post, Amber Rudd questioned whether the immigration system provided the “right incentives” for businesses to invest in British workers. She said she would look at tightening the test that companies take before recruiting from abroad.“The [visa] test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do,” Ms Rudd told the Conservative party conference. “But it has become a tick-box exercise, allowing some firms to get away with not training local people. We won’t win in the world if we don’t do more to upskill our own workforce.”
Under Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office, visa rules for non-EU students and workers were made much stricter. But despite these efforts, net migration is more than three times higher than the government target. As the health secretary also outlined plans to make the National Health Service less dependent on overseas medics, ministers signalled a determination to bear down on immigration even before Brexit occurs.Employer groups, which are already at odds with the May government over its increasingly hard line on cutting ties to the EU and efforts to shake up boardrooms, expressed dismay at Ms Rudd’s plans, saying the UK is already suffering from existing restrictions on high-skilled migration.
“At a time when we need strong links globally to seize new opportunities after the [Brexit] referendum, being seen as open to the best and brightest is vital,” said Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the CBI employers’ organisation. “And we should be clear that business does not see immigration and training as an either/or choice. We need both.” Ms Rudd was careful to note that immigration enhanced Britain’s “economy, society and culture”. But she insisted too many people were coming to the UK and more work was needed to ensure only the “brightest and best” were allowed in from beyond Europe. The home secretary also expressed concern that under current rules, all foreign students, “irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality”, benefit from favourable employment prospects in the UK.
“We need to look at whether this one-size-fits-all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country,” she said. “And we need to look at whether this generous offer for all universities is really adding value to our economy.” Ms Rudd said she would consider whether student migration rules should take into account the quality of the course and the educational institution being applied to.
This idea was mooted a year ago by Nick Timothy, the prime minister’s chief of staff, who said there were only 70,000 foreign students at Russell Group universities compared with 113,000 at less prestigious universities and language colleges. One recurring criticism levelled by Home Office ministers is that some foreign students, even those studying English language degrees, are not proficient English speakers. Business leaders and university vice-chancellors have already complained that the existing visa rules make it harder for them to compete internationally. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of international students who came to the UK last year had dropped by 15 per cent since the previous year. Arrivals of students from the Indian subcontinent have been particularly badly hit.
Mr Hardie of the CBI said ministers should “tread carefully” on student immigration, arguing that many university courses were sustained by international student fees and talented staff from around the world.Seamus Nevin of the Institute of Directors warned that immigration would continue to be a “major bone of contention” between companies and this government.
“Staying on the current course will end up satisfying no one,” he said. “Net immigration will likely stay above 100,000, while firms and the public sector struggle to fill skills gaps, making it harder for them to navigate the uncertainty of the coming Brexit negotiations.”
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