Prime minister Theresa May distanced herself last week from remarks by a junior minster who had suggested Britain was considering introducing an annual £1,000 “immigration skills charge” after Brexit on every skilled worker from an EU member state recruited by a British employer.
The idea had drawn sharp condemnation from a prominent employers’ group, the opposition Liberal Democrats and the European Parliament’s representive handling Brexit.
Immigration minister Robert Goodwill had told a parliamentary committee that a skills levy was due to come into force in April for non-EU workers, and it had been suggested the government could extend it to skilled EU workers.
“For example, if one wishes to recruit an Indian computer programmer on a four-year contract, on top of the existing visa charges and the administration involved around that… there will be a fee of £1,000 per year,” Goodwill said.
“That’s something that currently applies to non-EU. That may be something that’s been suggested to us that could apply to EU.”
But May’s spokeswoman said he had been misinterpreted.
“He seems to have been misinterpreted and those comments taken out of context,” she told reporters. “What he said was there are a number of things that some people may suggest could be the way forward.
“At no point did he say it is on the agenda. It is not on the government’s agenda.”
Britons voted by 52 to 48 per cent in a referendum last June to leave the European Union after a campaign in which the Brexit camp argued for tighter controls on immigration than are allowed under the EU’s rules.
The Institute of Directors (IoD), an employers’ organisation, said earlier the suggested levy would hit businesses dependent on skills from abroad.
“This tax will only damage jobs growth at a time when many businesses are living with uncertainty,” said Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills at the IoD.
“They simply cannot endure the double whammy of more restriction and then, if they do succeed in finding the right candidate, the prospect of an extra charge.”
Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, now the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit process, had called the proposal “shocking”.
“Imagine, just for a moment, what the UK headlines would be, if the EU proposed this for UK nationals?” he wrote on Twitter.
The Liberal Democrats, a pro-EU opposition party, called Goodwill’s suggestion “idiotic”.
In October, interior minister Amber Rudd’s suggestion of making companies publish the number of foreign workers they employed faced a public outcry.