U.K. Said to Tailor Immigration to Help Banks, Farms With Brexit

  • Ministers want to avoid labour shortages from finance to farms
  • Points-based immigration system, foreign workers tax ruled out

Theresa May is drawing up plans to protect against Brexit-related labor shortages by tailoring new immigration rules to specific industries, officials familiar with the policy said.

The government is gathering information on banking, agriculture, construction, universities and hospitality to ensure they don’t face staffing difficulties after Britain has withdrawn from the European Union, according to three officials who asked not to be named because the policy isn’t finalized.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd and May are grappling with the thorny task of trying to cut annual net immigration from near record levels of more than 300,000 at the time of last June’s referendum to the target of the “tens of thousands” that they promised voters.

At the same time, they are seeking to balance the needs of businesses that have become dependent on foreign labor both for skilled work in hospitals and banks, and for jobs that Britons don’t want on farms and restaurants.

Arguments about immigration dominated the Brexit campaign, and May says the vote to leave the EU was also a vote to regain control over the numbers of people entering the country.

Rudd is devising the new strategy, with Brexit Secretary David Davis closely involved. His department is analyzing more than 50 economic areas to identify priorities with other ministries offering back up.

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Other government departments are liaising with businesses relevant to their work. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in talks with representatives from agriculture while the Department for Education is liaising with universities.

The government is also trying to marry immigration policy with May’s industrial strategy, announced in January, one of the officials said. That involves identifying skills shortages and then seeking to fill those gaps with a mixture of immigration and extra training for Britons.

Two of the officials said May has ruled out an Australian points-based system, as well as the notion of charging companies for hiring EU workers, an idea that sparked a backlash last month when it was mooted by Home Office Minister Robert Goodwill. A seasonal workers program is still being considered for agriculture, one official said.

“We are going to work with businesses, with employers to make sure that the immigration system we put in place does enable them to continue to thrive and continue to grow,” Rudd said on Sunday. “We are against cliff edges, so as part of the consultation we will be bringing out in the summer, we will be asking them the best way to deliver that.”

EU Residents

Another immigration puzzle left to resolve is the fate of some 3 million EU citizens who live in Britain. Their right to remain depends on reciprocal promises by the other 27 EU members for Britons living in their territories.

Still open for discussion is the arrival date up to which guarantees will apply, with the government debating three options:

  • Safe if you settled in Britain before the June 23 plebiscite last year
  • You’re fine if a legal resident when Brexit is formally initiated in March
  • Cutoff is the day of the actual divorce, or two years after the trigger

Officials fear legal challenges if they use the referendum date, and are concerned about an influx of migrants in the run-up to Brexit if they use the latest date. That makes the middle option the most probable though even that risks legal challenges from people who arrive afterwards on the grounds that Britain would still be in the EU, two of the officials said.

The issue is so charged that Rudd wrote to the House of Lords to say “the government remains committed to providing reassurance to EU nationals” but stopped short of a unilateral guarantee. May is braced for defeat on a key vote Wednesday in the upper house over the rights of EU citizens to stay put the U.K.

As May does not have a majority in the Lords, a setback there would slow her march to Brexit.