Business leaders have warned Theresa May she will damage the economy by renewing the Government’s commitment to reduce net migration to under 100,000 a year.
Five leading business groups have told The Independent they are worried the controversial target to cut the figure – which stood at 273,000 for the year to September – to “tens of thousands” will deny companies the foreign workers they need to meet the huge challenges they face post-Brexit.
Although business groups want the Prime Minister to think again, the target set by David Cameron in 2010 looks certain to be repeated in the Tory manifesto next week.
Ms May has overruled Cabinet colleagues including Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, who hinted at a more flexible approach. Some ministers fear the target will never be hit.
Reacting to the business criticism, a Conservative spokesman said: “Under the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May, the UK will continue to attract the brightest and best to give the economy the skills needed while bringing net migration down to sustainable levels.
“By contrast Jeremy Corbyn appears to have no plan for immigration and would put the Brexit negotiations and our economic progress at risk.”
But Josh Hardie, the deputy director-general of the CBI, said: “It is right that the UK takes control of immigration but the starting point must be the outcomes that we want for people, in work and in public services, not a single, blunt target that risks backfiring at a pivotal time for the UK economy.”
Dr Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, agreed. He said the target did not reflect what businesses in Britain needed, and risked reducing jobs and investment.
He said: “Politicians may think a terrible idea is a vote-winner, but that doesn’t make it any less terrible.
“An arbitrary target for migration isn’t what the British people want, or what British businesses need, to navigate the challenges and opportunities of Brexit. There is a huge difference between controlling immigration, which people understand and accept, and setting an arbitrary target that damages jobs and investment.”
The Institute of Directors said such a target was a poor substitute for a proper immigration policy. Instead, Seamus Nevin, the institute’s head of employment and skills policy, said setting “arbitrary numbers” which are not linked to the skill gap would achieve nothing without the infrastructure in place to enable the target to be met.
His comments were echoed by the chief executive of London First, Jasmine Whitbread. She said: “Business understands the need for control over immigration, and is up for working with government to achieve this in a phased and realistic way. But a net migration target makes no sense whatsoever - it would be an arbitrary number and prove impossible to meet without risking serious damage to the UK economy.”
For Verity O’Keefe, the senior employment and skills policy adviser at EEF, the manufacturers’ body, the government’s target to cut net migration “by tens of thousands” has made it more difficult and costly for employers to recruit the people they need.
“If we want to prevent a skills cliff-edge, government should be opening its doors to global talent, not closing them," she said.
Chuka Umunna, Labour’s former shadow Business Secretary, slammed the government’ target as “incompatible” with businesses’ recruitment needs and called for the target to be dropped.
He said: “Businesses could not be clearer: they need the talent and hard work of Europeans to thrive and innovate. This is true of all the major sectors of our economy, whether manufacturing or science, hospitality or farming.
“The Government’s extreme target to reduce migration to the tens of thousands is simply incompatible with this. It should be dropped immediately, not least because no one thinks it is achievable and so it only serves to erode trust in the system. Ministers would be applauded for their bravery if they change course.”
UK news in pictures
UK news in pictures
1/19 24 June 2017
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses revellers from the Pyramid Stage at Worthy Farm in Somerset during the Glastonbury Festival
2/19 23 June 2017
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a news conference at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 23, 2017
3/19 22 June 2017
Cosplay fans (L-R) George Massingham, Abbey Forbes and Karolina Goralik travel by tube dressed in Harry Potter themed costumes, after a visit to one the literary franchise's movie filming locations at Leadenhall Market in London, Britain
4/19 22 June 2017
Racegoers cheer on their horse on Ladies Day at the Royal Ascot horse racing meet, in Ascot, west of London
5/19 21 June 2017
A reveller walks among the tipi tents at the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, South West England
6/19 20 June 2017
A police officer lays some flowers passed over by a member of the public, close to Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, after one man died and eight people were taken to hospital and a person arrested after a rental van struck pedestrian
The Borough Market bell is seen in Borough Market in central London following its re-opening after the June 3 terror attack
Two women embrace in Borough Market, which officially re-opens today following the recent attack, in central London
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan attends the re-opening of Borough market in central London following the June 3 terror attack
People walk through Borough Market in central London following its re-opening after the June 3 terror attack
News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch, with one of his daughters, visit Borough Market, which officially re-opened today following the recent attack
A woman reacts in front of a wall of messages in Borough Market, which officially re-opened today following the recent attack, in central London
Vivenne Westwood walks the runway at the Vivenne Westwood show during the London Fashion Week Men's June 2017 collections
Millwall fan and London Bridge hero Roy Larner on 'Good Morning Britain'
Richard Arnold, Roy Larner, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on 'Good Morning Britain'
16/19 11 June 2017
England players celebrate after defeating Venezuela 1-0 to win the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea 2017 at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea
17/19 11 June 2017
England players celebrate with the trophy after the final match of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2017 between Venezuela and England at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea
18/19 11 June 2017
Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee celebrates winning the Elite Men Columbia Threadneedle World Triathlon Leeds
Danny Lawson/PA Wire
19/19 11 June 2017
Two men drink beer outside the Southwark Tavern which reopened for business today next to an entrance to Borough Market which remains closed in London
The warnings from business leaders come as The Independent and the Open Britain group are running a Drop the Target campaign urging the Government to abandon its goal.
Further evidence of the need for a more flexible approach to migration after Brexit emerged in a survey of other trade groups by Open Britain.
The Federation of Small Businesses found that one in five small firms employs EU workers, and that 59 per cent of those companies are worried about skills shortages after Brexit.
Some 13 per cent with EU employees would consider moving their business abroad if there were additional barriers to recruiting in the EU.
The British Hospitality Association said that, without future EU migration, the sector would face a recruitment crisis, with more than 60,000 workers a year needed on top of the usual 200,000.
EU citizens account for 27 per cent of the workforce in the food and drink industry and provide a highly-valued solution to the skills gap.
According to the National Farmers’ Union, the sector needs EU and non-EU seasonal and permanent labour to ensure the timely delivery of high quality affordable food to consumers.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said uncertainty was creating “the negative impression that the UK is closed to foreign workers, making it harder to market the country as an attractive destination for the talent essential to the industry.”
Free movement of labour within European borders should continue, said the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which pointed to more than 5,000 vacancies in the automotive sector.
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association said: “Any future controls on the movement of people must ensure continued access to a skilled workforce: winemakers, pickers and the hospitality sector.”Reuse content