Ministers have been accused of sending mixed signals to a business community seeking to employ foreign staff after the home secretary said the UK had too many low-skilled migrant workers and high numbers of international students who often bring dependants.
Suella Braverman’s comments came days after the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, said the government was launching a review of immigration policy as part of an attempt to boost growth after complaints from business groups that post-Brexit rules were too restrictive, especially for low-paid jobs.
In an interview with the Sun on Sunday, Braverman also promised to enforce Boris Johnson’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and reform modern slavery laws to make it easier to remove claimants from the UK.
In an interview before the Conservative party’s annual conference, Braverman said Liz Truss intended to stick to a 2019 election pledge to lower net migration.
“What we’ve got is too many low-skilled workers coming into this country,” she said. “We’ve also got a very high number of students coming into this country and we’ve got a really high number of dependants.
“Those people are coming here, they’re not necessarily working or they’re working in low-skilled jobs, and they’re not contributing to growing our economy,” she said.
The shadow immigration minister, Stephen Kinnock, responded: “It is vital that government provides business with certainty, stability and clarity. But like so much else, this government’s immigration policy is all over the place, with the chancellor and the home secretary sending utterly confused and chaotic signals.”
The SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, Stuart McDonald, questioned Braverman’s priorities. “The idea that trashing the Modern Slavery Act and reducing international students are the biggest priorities for the new home secretary is completely and utterly ludicrous,” he said.
“Like her predecessor [Priti Patel], it seems it will be more nasty rhetoric and desperate gestures – making things worse rather than better.”
Since January 2021, most workers must be paid at least £25,600 a year for an employer to sponsor a visa, causing problems in sectors such as agriculture, hospitality and some manufacturing, where lower wages are common.
Numbers of EU workers have fallen, but this has been offset by an increase in the number of non-EU workers, especially from India. Net migration to Britain totalled 239,000 in the year to June 2021, according to the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics.
The UK government expanded the seasonal worker scheme (SWS) this year to allow 30,000 temporary migrants to come to the UK for up to six months, with a reserve of a further 10,000 visas if necessary.
During her campaign to become Conservative party leader and PM, Truss said: “We need to expand the scheme.”
Braverman said she wanted to restrict the ability of migrants to challenge deportation on the basis that they had been subjected to forced labour or human trafficking, known as modern slavery.
In her first interview since taking over the role from Patel, she said: “There’s a crisis on the Channel and it’s been going on for far too long. There have been huge attempts to try and stop the problem and I feel that we are at a stage now where we need to take dramatic action.
“What’s happened is that the aims and the structure of that legislation have been completely distorted. Now what we are seeing is a majority of people coming here from Albania, some 80% of the people coming across on small boats are claiming to be victims of modern slavery.
“That’s regardless of the fact that they may have paid tens of thousands of pounds for the privilege of being a so-called modern slave.
“That’s also regardless of the fact that they will have actively sought to come to the UK through an illegal, illicit and dangerous method. So it’s being abused.”
The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said Braverman’s comments were “really disappointing”.
“We desperately need fresh thinking to both support people seeking asylum having fled war, persecution and conflict and to create a system which is fair and compassionate and can command the confidence of the public,” he said.
“A critical first step should be to clear the backlog of more than 100,000 cases left in limbo awaiting an initial decision.”
Meanwhile the justice secretary, Brandon Lewis, said he planned to push ahead with plans to allow the government to ignore Strasbourg court judgments.
At a fringe event at the conference in Birmingham, he said the government would put forward “different pieces of legislation” to replace the bill of rights, which the government dropped last month.
“We’re working through all the issues that were being considered for the bill of rights, looking at which of those we take forward and in which way we take them forward … whether it’s through Ministry of Justice legislation or potentially through Home Office legislation,” he said.
Lewis also said he hoped the long-running strike by criminal barristers in England and Wales would end after the government offered them “a comprehensive package” including a 15% fee increase.