Plans for a stringent cap on numbers of immigrant workers are to be softened in the face of warnings from business leaders that it could prevent them from bringing the brightest foreign talent to Britain.
Ministers are close to a deal on an issue that has deeply divided the coalition partners, The Independent understands. Introducing a limit on visas issued to non-European Union workers was a Conservative election manifesto promise, while the idea of a rigid annual cap was fiercely opposed by the Liberal Democrats.
Since the election, industry has strongly lobbied the Government against taking too inflexible an approach. It has received strong support from Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, and David Willetts, the Tory Science Minister.
David Cameron yesterday signalled that the limit would be designed in such a way that it would allow firms to recruit high-flying foreign staff. He told the Confederation of British Industry conference: "As we control our borders and bring immigration down to a manageable level, we will not impede you from bringing talented overseas staff in to help grow your business."
Ministers are considering two options: they could allow firms to transfer staff from offices overseas to Britain for limited periods without counting towards the limit, or allow them to take on highly qualified foreign staff in return for paying a high visa fee. Cabinet ministers will meet shortly with a view to announcing the policy by December.
Whitehall sources made clear that there was no question of the cap being abandoned. One said: "Politically this issue is very important to the Tory Party – it has real concerns about the levels of immigration. It's about the balance that will be achieved in implementing the policy."