LONDON — Britain will impose a tough annual limit on the number of non-Europeans allowed to work in the U.K. and slash visas for overseas students as it seeks to dramatically reduce immigration, the government said Tuesday.
Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons that the number of non-EU nationals permitted to work in the U.K. from April 2011 will be capped at about 22,000 – a reduction of about one-fifth from 2009.
But thousands of people who are allowed to work in Britain on intracompany transfers aren't included in those figures – or under the new quota. Critics said that means it's unclear how Prime Minister David Cameron's government will meet a pledge to cut net immigration, which also includes students and families of visa holders, to below 100,000 by 2015, from about 196,000 last year.
"We can't go on like this, we must tighten up our immigration system," May told legislators as she announced details of the new rules.
Public anxiety over immigration – and the burden on public services caused by new arrivals – was a key issue during the country's national election, when then-leader Gordon Brown was angrily challenged by an elderly voter over workers arriving from eastern Europe.
As a member of the European Union, Britain must allow citizens of most other member states freedom to live and work in the U.K.
Business leaders had urged Cameron's government against stringent restrictions on non-European workers, arguing vital sectors would be left short of staff – particularly in health care and for energy infrastructure projects.
Indian officials also warned Cameron over restricting the rights of their citizens to study and work in the U.K. during his visit in July.
May said Britain would reserve 1,000 visas each year for talented scientists, academics and artists.
"Business will be pleased to see that the government has taken its concerns onboard," said David Frost, director of the British Chambers of Commerce.
May said her changes would limit the number of staff that international corporations are permitted to transfer to Britain from offices overseas.
In the future, no staff member who earn under 40,000 pounds (US$63,500) per year will be eligible to stay for longer than 12 months – though they will be able to carry out shorter contracts in Britain.
May did not specify how many people the policy would affect, but figures for 2009 show that half of the 22,000 admitted under the category earned less than the new salary criteria.
Labour Party legislator Ed Balls criticized the government for failing to set a limit on intracompany transfers. "Can she confirm her supposed cap is in fact a con, a guess, a fig leaf, no cap at all?" he asked May in the Commons.
May's quota will have only a limited impact on Britain's overall immigration rate – as work-related visas account only for about 20 percent of migration.
Families of those with rights to live and work in Britain claim about 20 percent of visas, while non-European students arriving to study in the U.K. account for 60 percent of immigration.
May said those seeking a marriage visa will in the future need to prove they have a minimum standard of English.
Her ministry will also develop plans to drastically reduce Britain's foreign student population, likely allowing entry only to those working on college degrees, or more advanced qualifications.
She told lawmakers there would be a more stringent regime to check the credentials of schools that offer visas to overseas students. Police and security officials have recently raised concerns over the education system being targeted by terrorists to gain permission to live in Britain.
"By introducing a system that is more selective and more robust, the government is aiming to stamp out abuse while continuing to attract the top students to our top universities," she said.