Fresh questions have been raised over Theresa May’s hardline stance on immigration after reports emerged suggesting she had intervened to stop doctors from overseas coming to the UK.
The prime minister is said to have overruled other cabinet ministers arguing that more foreign doctors were desperately needed to help meet staff shortages in the NHS.
Despite pressure from the home secretary, health secretary and business secretary, Ms May is said to have refused to budge on rules that restrict the number of visas given to specialist workers from overseas.
The claims, reported by the Evening Standard, are likely to fresh pressure on Ms May to defend her immigration policy in the wake of the Windrush scandal that forced the resignation of her home secretary, Amber Rudd.
The prime minister has been widely criticised for the “hostile environment” she presided over as home secretary between 2010 and 2016.
The latest reports suggest Ms May denied requests for visa rules to be relaxed in order to allow more doctors and other skilled workers to come to Britain.
As well as Ms Rudd, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, and Greg Clark, the business secretary, are reported to have urged the prime minister to soften her stance.
They are said to have been lobbying Downing Street for several months amid growing concern among NHS executives and business leaders about the impact visa restrictions, coupled with Brexit, are having on the availability of skilled workers in the UK.
Last week, NHS executives warned the tough visa restrictions, designed to help the Conservatives meet their promise to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”, have led to more than 400 overseas doctors being turned away since December and are depriving hospitals of desperately needed staff.
Despite growing pressure, the Standard quoted a Whitehall source as saying Ms May had “absolutely refused to budge” on the issue.
Another source is reported to have said: “I think Jeremy and Amber were on the same page on this but No 10 were in a different place entirely.
“The cap had been reached for several months consecutively and the pressures on business and the health service were building up.”
The row centres on quotas that restrict the number of “Tier 2” visas for specialist workers that are granted each year.
The annual limit is currently set at 20,700, but if the quota for each month is met then skilled workers seeking to come to the UK are refused. This has been the case for each of the past six months, leading businesses and NHS bosses to warn about a crippling lack of skilled staff.
Asked about the story a Downing Street spokesman said it remained “essential to have control of our immigration system”.
He added: “We are monitoring the situation in relation to visa applications for doctors, including the monthly limits through the Tier 2 visa route.”
The government’s tough approach to immigration has been widely questioned following the Windrush scandal, which saw people who have lived in the UK legally for decades caught up in efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration. Ms Rudd’s replacement as home secretary, Sajid Javid, used his first Commons outing in his new role to describe the term “hostile environment” as “incorect” and “unhelpful”.
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