Small businesses have written to home secretary Priti Patel pleading for a delay to the introduction of her new immigration rules which they say will be “impossible” to implement in the immediate wake of the coronavirus crisis.
In a joint letter, they warn that the planned imposition of the new post-Brexit system on 1 January will be “disastrous” for tens of thousands of small businesses which will have to comply with expensive new bureaucratic requirements when hiring staff from EU countries.
It comes as Ms Patel’s delayed Immigration Bill returns to the House of Commons for its second reading on Monday, amid calls from some Tory MPs for changes to make it easier for key health and care workers to come to the UK.
Under the home secretary’s plans, working visa applications will be decided on a “points-based system” recognising education level, English language skills and occupation, with a minimum salary threshold of £25,600 for most workers.
For the first time since the introduction of free movement regulations, the controls will apply to EU nationals and thousands of migrants will have to provide proof of a job offer in the UK.
And employers will have to pay an Immigration Skills Charge of up to £1,000 a year for each migrant they employ, while incoming workers will face a £624 Immigration Health Surcharge to cover possible use of the NHS during their time in the UK.
Signatories to today’s letter, who include former Siemens UK CEO Juergen Maier – now chair of early-adoption tech agency Digital Catapult – and economist Vicky Pryce, said that the new system would have imposed a “huge challenge” on small businesses even without the Cover-19 outbreak.
But they said it will prove impossible for many firms to absorb the additional costs and time demands of the new system when they are already reeling from the impact of lockdown.
“We are feeling the brunt of the economic shutdown that is necessary while people stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives,” wrote the small business figures.
“We are doing what we can to prevent the virus from spreading; adapting our operations to enable employees to work from home; coping with higher rates of sick leave; and enduring the financial shock of reduced economic output and consumer demand.
“This is obviously a huge burden for small businesses, on top of all the challenges we already face every day.
“It makes it impossible for us to also prepare for the government’s new immigration system, which you have announced will come into force on 1 January next year.”
The letter said: “Preparing for the new system was already a huge challenge for employers, even before we were also facing the coronavirus pandemic.
“Many of us will have to adapt our recruitment policies, enhance our HR functions, and adjust our budgets to reflect the big extra costs of visa fees, the Immigration Skills Charge and the Immigration Health Surcharge.
“In addition, many of us will need to apply for sponsor licences for the first time. As you know, only 2 per cent of employers currently sponsor visas for non-EU nationals, but tens of thousands more will have to become sponsors under the new system.”
The signatories warned Ms Patel: “We already had grave concerns about doing all of this in less than eight months – especially as the government has still not published full details of the new immigration system yet. Now, with coronavirus, our concerns are even more severe.
“We therefore urge you to cancel your plans to end free movement and impose your new immigration system from 1 January 2021. To do anything else would be disastrous for the small businesses that power the UK economy.”
Acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, who has also signed the letter, told The Independent: “It is hard to believe that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Conservatives are still pressing ahead with their destructive plans.
“Now more than ever, we should be celebrating the enormous contributions that workers from all over the world make to our NHS, social care and across our society. Priti Patel may consider care workers to be ‘low skilled’, but they are on the front lines protecting us and our loved ones every single day.
“If the Conservatives go ahead with these plans, they will deal a massive new blow to the NHS and British businesses, just as the economy is beginning to recover from the coronavirus crisis.
“Liberal Democrats are opposing this bill and arguing instead for a fair, effective and compassionate immigration system that works for our economy and treats everyone with the dignity they deserve.”
Ms Patel said: “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”
Liberal Democrats, the SNP and backbench Labour MPs have all tabled amendments to strike down Ms Patel’s bill at second reading, but Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority means there is no doubt it will survive, with critics pinning their hopes on changes to soften its impact or delay its imposition later in its passage through parliament.
Signatories to today’s letter are:
Juergen Maier (Chair of Digital Catapult and board member of Northern Powerhouse Partnership)
Andrew Dixon (ARC InterCapital managing director)
Vicky Pryce (Former joint head of the UK Government Economic Service)
Tim Cowen (Chair Antitrust Practice, Preiskel & Co LLP)
Martin Rimmer (Director, Masterclass Training Limited)
Francis Toye (Managing Director, Unilink Software Ltd)
Ed Cooke (Lawyer)
Emma Degg (Chief executive North West Business Leadership Team)
Mike Cox (Director, Cox Costello & Horne)
The Low Carbon Strategy Network
David Whitestone (Director, Floyd Slaski Architects Ltd)
Avril Coelho (Chair, Hampton on Thames Community Association CIO)
Sam Al-Hamdani (Self-employed graphic designer)
Dr Barbara Gibson (Founder & CEO, Women & Girls in Politics CIC)
Liz Leffman (Director, Clothesource Management Services Ltd)
Carol J Hagh
Philip Maskell (Director Stoneofoy Ltd)
Charlie Du Cane
Pim Piers (CEO, OneCross Partners Limited)
Henry Ritchotte (Founder, RitMir Ventures Limited)
Chris Davies (Councillor)
Yves de Contades (CEO, The Excellence Group)
Stephen Gosling (Former CEO, Adams Aviation)
Tim Cotterill (Owner & Chairman, James Lister and Sons Limited)