Liz Truss set for first Cabinet split over plan to relax UK immigration rules

Prime minister is expected to lift the 40,000 cap on seasonal workers who can come to Britain for work

British Prime Minister Liz Truss is expected to relax rules on overseas workers in an attempt to plug gaps in the labour market. Reuters
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Britain’s Prime Minister Liz Truss is braced for her first Cabinet row as she looks to unfurl measures on Britain’s post-Brexit immigration system.

Just weeks after entering No 10 Downing Street, the new Conservative leader is tipped to expand the government’s shortage occupation list to help businesses attract overseas workers to fill vacancies.

EU immigration plummeted after Britain voted to leave the bloc in 2016. The open borders policy that comes with membership was cited as a concern among many voters who backed Brexit.

Ms Truss campaigned for the Remain side in the historic vote but has since had a change of view and said she would vote Leave if she had her time back. She is under pressure from industry bosses to help plug gaps in the labour market as businesses try to recover from staff leaving after Brexit and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Top figures in different sectors want more migrant workers to be granted visas to come to the UK as concerns increase about a lack of manpower.

Companies are frustrated that the visa system for skilled work has not been responsive enough to shortages they are experiencing.

Ms Truss is on a mission to boost economic growth and last week her government announced the biggest tax-cutting package since 1972 in an attempt to get things moving after two years of on-and-off Covid restrictions.

She is now planning to lift the current 40,000 cap on seasonal workers and extend it beyond the six-month limit, according to a report by The Sun. The seasonal workers programme, launched in 2019, temporarily allows tens of thousands of overseas workers into the UK for seasonal roles in the horticulture and poultry sectors.

Ms Truss is unapologetic about “focusing relentlessly on economic growth”, even if that means implementing unpopular policies.

But the prime minister is likely to come up against stiff resistance from Cabinet Brexiteers, including Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who has been tasked with tackling the surging numbers of illegal migrants arriving in the UK. Last week the number of people who crossed the Channel from France on small boats since the start of the year reached 30,000, government figures showed, and the steady stream of vessels continued this weekend. In less than nine months the total exceeded the overall figures for 2021.

Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, also Brexit-backing Cabinet members, would also probably oppose a plan to welcome more foreign workers to the UK. Mr Rees-Mogg has told colleagues he would support the changes only if they were shown to increase gross domestic product per capita.

Downing Street did not deny that the prime minister is planning to liberalise routes to allow foreign workers to move to the UK, as first reported in The Sun.

During her campaign for the Tory leadership, Ms Truss vowed to tackle the labour shortages in farming ― partly caused by post-Brexit freedom-of-movement restrictions and accentuated by the coronavirus crisis ― with a short-term expansion to the seasonal workers scheme.

A recent government report said such shortages were badly affecting the food and agricultural sector, often forcing farmers to cull healthy pigs and leave fruit rotting in the fields.

A Downing Street source said: “We need to put measures in place so that we have the right skills that the economy, including the rural economy, needs to stimulate growth.

“That will involve increasing numbers in some areas and decreasing in others. As the prime minister has made clear, we also want to see people who are economically inactive get back into work.”

Ministers are expected to set out a plan for migration reform later this year. The proposal appears to move away from Boris Johnson’s stance on immigration and may irk some Brexit voters.

Updated: September 25, 2022, 1:27 PM