Sajid Javid has said there will be further consultation on a widely expected £30,000 salary threshold for skilled workers as the government prepares to publish a long-awaited white paper on immigration.
The home secretary declined to reiterate Theresa May’s 2017 election manifesto pledge to bring net migration down to “tens of thousands” as he struggled to give details about the government’s post-Brexit plans for the UK.
It follows cabinet rows over the white paper, which was supposed to be published earlier this year. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and Greg Clark, the business secretary, were among ministers opposed to the plans over concerns that they would severely restrict businesses and the NHS from recruiting staff.
In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Javid said the £30,000 threshold would be “discussed further”, despite widespread reports that it would be a central plank of the white paper.
“We are not setting the exact threshold today. There will be a threshold. The MAC [migration advisory committee] suggested it should be £30,000,” he said.
“While that is their view … it is equally important to listen to business and find the right threshold. So we will be setting out today, we shall consult further on whether it is £30,000 or thereabouts.”
Final drafts of key passages of the white paper were still passing between departments on Tuesday night. However, the paper is expected to make clear the government is not prepared to give EU nationals preferential access to Britain’s labour market after Brexit.
Javid refused to confirm that the government would maintain the 2017 manifesto pledge on net migration. Asked if the target of “tens of thousands” had been abandoned, he said: “What was clear from the manifesto was our commitment to bring net migration down.”
The goal of cutting net migration – the difference between the number of people arriving in the UK versus the number leaving, over a year – was first set by David Cameron’s coalition government in 2010. The target has never been met, with annual net migration standing at about 244,000.
Javid, widely seen as among the frontrunners to replace May as leader of the Tories, referred to his own background as he justified seeking a tougher immigration regime in the future.
“Immigration is good for our country. It has made us stronger in countless ways. I am a second-generation migrant myself and if I look at people such as my parents I can see how they have helped this country in so many ways,” he said.
Downing Street believes one of the central messages from voters in the 2016 EU referendum was a demand for tighter controls on immigration. Ending free movement of EU nationals is a key point of difference between May’s Brexit plans and alternatives such as the Norway-style deal advocated by some in cabinet.
The prime minister apologised last month after causing controversy by telling business leaders that EU nationals would no longer be able to “jump the queue” after Brexit.
The home secretary has previously hinted he was considering scrapping the current £20,700-a-year threshold for highly skilled migrants.
The UK and the EU have agreed a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration outlining ambitions for future talks. However, the deal needs to be agreed by parliament for it to come into force.
A vote by MPs had been scheduled for 11 December, but May postponed it until the third week of January after it was clear her deal would be rejected, leading to widespread anger in the Commons.