One of the world's largest companies has warned the Government in face-to-face talks that its cap on immigration risks jeopardising investment worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
Senior representatives from General Electric (GE), which announced its intention to build a £100m offshore wind-turbine factory in Britain in March, last Wednesday met privately with the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, to issue the warning.
The company warned it would find it difficult to fill some specialist jobs without bringing experts from overseas. It is the first major firm known to have directly lobbied the Government over the controversial immigration cap.
In an interview with The Independent, Mr Huhne said the cap – pushed by his Conservative cabinet colleagues – was a source of concern to him. He said he would be holding urgent meetings with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Immigration minister, Damian Green, to relay his fears.
Mr Huhne also questioned the Tories' environmental credentials. He said that GE was not the only large investor in Britain's green energy industry to have warned him that the cap on migrants would lead to the withdrawal of investment. GE's wind-turbine plant will provide 2,000 jobs if it goes ahead, supposedly contributing £600m to the economy through the boost it would give to local businesses.
"I have been personally lobbied by some major investors, pointing out the problems that face them if we have an inflexible immigration cap," Mr Huhne said. "That was a point made to me very forcefully by GE.
"They are about to be, I hope, a very significant investor... One of the issues they raised was whether they were going to be able to get key skills in and out of the country, given our commitment to an immigration cap."
He is the second Liberal Democrat cabinet minister to speak out against the cap, after the Business Secretary Vince Cable warned it would be "very damaging to the UK economy".
Mr Huhne said the ability to secure relevant skills was "absolutely essential to any project".
"When I was in the City, I had to hire an Arab-speaking economist who knew about the Middle East and there wasn't one in the UK. If I had not been able to hire that person, I would not have been able to do the business. That business ensured that all sorts of British people had jobs.
"I do think we need to look at this in the round. I think when most people consider immigration, what they want is for us to be extremely tough on people who do not have skills to offer the country. But where there are very high-level skills that are needed to make the economy work and be competitive, I think we need to be flexible enough to welcome those people in."
He added that a Liberal Democrat plan to set immigration quotas regionally, allowing more workers to settle where skills are needed, would be "one way of introducing some flexibility".
"A deal is a deal," he said. "We agreed in the coalition agreement to have a cap. The question is how the cap is applied, and whether the cap going to be on the people my constituents actually want to see controlled."
Mr Huhne argued that many Tories are still yet to be converted to green causes. "I can go to pretty much anyone in the Liberal Democrats and I know that they will be extremely sympathetic to green goals," he said. "The Conservative Party isn't green in the same way. I'm sure the Prime Minster and the mainstream of the party is committed. But the Conservative Party as a whole still has a lot of people who wonder why on earth we are doing this green agenda."