Ministers have been accused of “rank hypocrisy” over their attitude to key workers as Labour claimed new immigration legislation would make it harder to fill NHS roles.
The government’s measures to replace European Union freedom of movement rules in the UK face their first Commons hurdle on Monday.
The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) bill is part of the move towards the government’s new points-based immigration system, to be introduced from 2021, although it does not set out the details on this.
These will be fleshed out in the immigration rules, which will explain the future system for EU and non-EU nationals who move to the UK after the Brexit transition period ends on December 2020.
Officials said the system will make it easier and quicker for medical professionals around the world to work in the health service through a new fast-track NHS visa.
Home secretary Priti Patel said it was a “firmer, fairer and simpler” system.
But shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the legislation was aimed at making overseas workers feel unwelcome in the UK and posed a threat to the country’s interests.
“It is rank hypocrisy towards our NHS and care workers, over 180,000 in England and Wales alone, to stand and clap for them on a Thursday night, and then tell them that they are not welcome in the UK on a Monday,” he said.
“The home secretary has been invisible throughout this crisis – and now her first major intervention is a bill that will make workers in the NHS and the care sector feel unwelcome in this country, as well as labelling retail workers, carers, local government workers, refuse collectors, and many more as ‘low skilled’ – the very same workers who have been keeping this country running throughout the crisis.
“This bill creates a threat to our national interest.
“It risks the NHS not being able to fill the desperately needed roles for trained nurses and care home workers at the very moment when we rely on the NHS most.”
The bill will be debated at second reading on Monday and then make its way through the parliamentary process.
It was previously introduced in the Commons in December 2018 but stalled weeks later as then prime minister Theresa May’s minority administration lacked the numbers to win key Brexit-linked votes.
Prime minister Boris Johnson brings it back with an 80-seat majority but amid pressure for the immigration rules to support those dubbed “key workers” during the coronavirus pandemic.
A YouGov poll, for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), suggested 54% of Britons would support loosening immigration restrictions for workers who were defined as essential during the crisis.
The government’s list of critical workers includes people in the food production and processing industry, such as delivery drivers, those working in waste disposal and more.
In February the government announced proposals for the new system, with points awarded for specific requirements such as being able to speak English to a certain level, having a job offer from an approved employer and meeting a salary threshold of £25,600.
Other points could be awarded for certain qualifications and if there is a shortage in a particular occupation.
A visa allowing doctors, nurses and health professionals from overseas to work in the NHS was introduced in March.
Patel claimed: “This historic piece of legislation gives the UK full control of our immigration system for the first time in decades and the power to determine who comes to this country.
“Our new points-based system is firmer, fairer, and simpler.
“It will attract the people we need to drive our economy forward and lay the foundation for a high wage, high skill, high productivity economy.”
But Satbir Singh, chief executive of the JCWI, said: “Bus drivers and lorry drivers, care workers and shop workers, nurses and cleaners – they are not ‘unskilled’ or unwelcome, they are the backbone of our country and they deserve the security of knowing that this place can be their home too.”
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