UK will not ease immigration barriers to plug skills shortages, says minister

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The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, has clashed with business bosses over access to overseas workers, saying companies should train UK staff to fill vacancies rather than relying on people from other countries.

But the head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which starts its annual conference on Monday, when it will hear from Rishi Sunak, said the current immigration system meant there was no “momentum for growth”.

Jenrick, who also dismissed weekend reports that the government was considering a move to a more liberal, Swiss-style post-Brexit relationship with the EU, told Sky News the aim was still to reduce overall net migration.

Ending freedom of movement of people was one of the “fundamental principles” of Brexit and could not be adapted, he said.

Asked about the CBI’s call for more, targeted immigration to plug some workforce gaps, Jenrick said: “I don’t agree with that. We listen to the business community, obviously, and we’re aware of certain skills shortages, and we want a pragmatic, sensible relationship with business.”

Some areas had been addressed, such as visas for health workers, Jenrick said: “But overall our ambition is to reduce net migration. We think that’s what the British public want. That was one of the driving forces in the vote to leave the European Union back in 2016.

“If I was a business manager, I would be looking to the British workforce in the first instance, seeing how I could get local people into my business, train them up, skill them to do the job.”

But speaking to Sky straight after Jenrick, Tony Danker, the director general of the CBI, said: “Where’s the momentum for growth? That’s why you have to look at things like immigration or planning or regulation.”

On immigration, he said: “This should be a very simple system. What are the jobs we need to fill, number one? Number two, have we got British workers to fill them? And number three, if we don’t, let’s use immigration on a fixed-term basis to plug the gaps until British workers are ready to do the jobs.

“That’s not how our immigration system works today, and that’s why it’s not helping us with our growth problem.”

Asked about reports about a possible future change in the UK’s relationship with the EU towards a model like that used by the Swiss, Jenrick said ministers were not considering this.

“No, we’re not,” he said. “We have a settled position. There was a long debate, and there were respectable arguments on both sides as to the degree of relationship that we had with the European Union.

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