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UK unveils tougher Brexit immigration policy, riling business

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Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the aim was to bring net migration down to "sustainable levels".

[LONDON] The UK published its long-awaited immigration plan for life outside the European Union, to end freedom of movement from the bloc and prioritize skilled workers regardless of nationality. Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the aim was to bring net migration down to "sustainable levels."

Reducing immigration has been a major issue for British voters and was a key motivation for many who chose to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. The freedom of citizens to move between members states is a founding principle of the bloc and isn't negotiable, its leaders say.

But the tougher rules of migrants - especially the government's proposed salary threshold of £30,000 (S$52,052) for skilled workers - would be a "sucker punch" for many companies that will struggle to recruit or retain staff, the Confederation of British Industry lobby group said in a statement.

The Cabinet was itself divided, and it was only after last-ditch negotiations between Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Business Secretary Greg Clark Tuesday that publication of the white paper went ahead.

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The compromise - to hold a 12-month public consultation on the threshold - sought to take account of Mrs May's desire to reduce immigration to below 100,000 in line with her Conservative Party's 2017 manifesto, and other ministers' concerns that the economy will suffer if a migrant talent pool dries up.

Speaking to BBC Radio on Wednesday, Mr Javid repeatedly refused to be drawn on whether the government has ditched its target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, saying only that the government had an "objective" to reduce immigration to "sustainable levels." Mrs May forcefully told the House of Commons her government is sticking to that target.

The white paper makes clear there is no cap on the number of skilled migrants.

"We want to focus on high skills, and if someone is high skilled, they should be earning more than the median salary," Mr Javid told the BBC.

He also denied the plans would harm the economy, arguing many countries - including the U.S. and Canada - have strong economies without freedom of movement. Citizens from the EU will acquire settled status if they have lived in the UK for five years.

Those arriving during the so-called implementation period laid out in the Brexit deal between the UK and EU - which has yet to be ratified - will also have their route to settled status streamlined, according to the white paper. In the event of no deal with the bloc, Mrs May told Parliament her priority would be the EU citizens currently residing in the UK and she expects a reciprocal arrangement from the bloc.

To ease concerns from business, the white paper also includes new routes for immigration, including extra time for students to seek work experience after completing their degree course. The number of entrants under the skilled migrant route will not be capped. There will also be exemptions for jobs where skilled workers are in short supply alongside "highly-valued" immigrants, such as scientists and engineers.

"I want an immigration system that's going to achieve our overall objectives and meet our national interests - and that is our economic objectives, of course - but also meeting some of the anxieties that exist in some communities about high levels of migration," Mr Javid told the BBC.

On Thursday, Mr Javid will introduce a new bill on immigration to Parliament intended to prepare the UK for leaving the EU. The white paper published Wednesday contains proposals for the future relationship with the bloc.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, an influential figure in the opposition Labour Party, said the plans could do "profound damage" to growth.

"It makes absolutely no sense for the government to come forward with a one-size-fits-all policy for the whole country," he said, according to a statement. "That simply won't work for London and flies in the face of what London businesses and we at City Hall have repeatedly told ministers we need."

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