EU citizens will no longer be given priority to live and work in Britain in a radical overhaul of immigration policy after Brexit, Theresa May has said, admitting Britons may in turn have to apply for US-style visas to visit and work in Europe.
The prime minister said the terms of the final deal with the EU could include mobility concessions, but said this would be within the control of the British government.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, said the government might consider dropping the cap on high-skilled visas altogether, a move recommended by a Migration Advisory Committee report.
Announcing the policy overnight, May said it “ends freedom of movement once and for all”, and that British tourists and workers would also be likely to face restrictions travelling in the EU, depending on the final outcome of the Brexit talks.
However, when questioned during a morning tour of broadcasters about the difficulties UK citizens might face when travelling to Europe, she would only say it was “part of the negotiations”.
She did not rule out Britons having to apply for US-style visa waiver forms to visit the EU after Brexit, saying she expected arrangements to be “reciprocal”.
Under the policy, she said, highly skilled workers who wanted to live and work in Britain would be given priority, while low-skilled immigration would be curbed, though the final terms are expected to be subject to the Brexit negotiations.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, May said she was not ruling out mobility concessions as part of a future Brexit deal, and that tourism and business travel were a component of the negotiations.
“In any trade deal countries do, there are normally parts of that which are about things like movement of businesspeople, and so forth,” she said. “But if we do a deal like that with the European Union, those elements will be open for trade deals with others as well.”
Current government policy is to allow 20,700 high-skilled workers into the UK each year on tier 2 visas. Speaking at a fringe meeting on Tuesday, Javid said he would be looking at “better ways” of controlling migration than a restrictive cap. “I will consider that. We’ve not made a decision yet,” he said.
May said the government wanted British people to fill the vacancies in areas such as hospitality and social care, which rely heavily on EU migrants, effectively ruling out an exemption for certain sectors.
“We’ll ensure we recognise the needs of the economy,” she said. “If you look at these low-skilled areas, we hope there will be the ability to train people here in the UK to take jobs.”
May said the government was already piloting a seasonal scheme for agricultural workers but said she was reluctant to commit to exemptions for other sectors.
“I’m not saying there are suddenly going to be lots of sectors of the economy which are going to have exemptions, which means you no longer have an immigration policy,” she said. “This is reflecting what a lot of people in this country want.”
The regime is likely to be popular with the Tory grassroots, many of whom have been been making their unhappiness felt at the annual party conference over May’s post-Brexit trade proposals.
The announcement came before a speech at fringe event by the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a harsh critic of the prime minister’s Brexit plans, which was expected to dominate the third day of the conference in Birmingham.
May said in a statement announcing the policy: “For the first time in decades, it will be this country that controls and chooses who we want to come here. For too long people have felt they have been ignored on immigration and that politicians have not taken their concerns seriously enough.”
May said the system would reduce low-skilled immigration and bring net migration down to “sustainable levels”, a coded reference to the “tens of thousands” manifesto pledge made eight years ago that Conservatives have thus far been unable to meet. “We retain our commitment to that target,” she told Today.
The proposals follow the report from the government’s Migration Advisory Committee, which recommended that visa applications from highly skilled workers be given priority over those from low-skilled workers.
The committee also said that offering concessions on immigration to the EU could be “potentially something of value to offer in the negotiations”, though it did not formally recommend this.
The government has said it intends to publish a white paper next year and a bill the following year, meaning it is highly likely MPs will not get to vote on the legislation before the UK leaves the EU in March.
Downing Street said there would be “routes for short-stay business trips and tourists and for those who want to live and work for longer in the UK” as well as passport e-gates to make travelling faster for short-stay visitors.
Javid will announce further details of the policy in a speech timetabled for midday on Tuesday, an hour before Johnson speaks.