Companies could be forced to say how many foreign workers they employ as part of a Government clampdown on immigration.
The move comes as ministers seek to tighten the rules in an attempt to meet a Tory pre-election pledge to cut immigration significantly. Proposals will be set out within weeks, while David Cameron may outline some of the details in a speech this week.
Other elements of the package are likely to include:
* A drive against sham marriages, with the “probationary period” before which spouses can settle in Britain increased from two years to five.
* A review of the work visa system, used by up to 21,700 skilled employees a year to come to Britain.
* A move to raise the minimum salary–currently £20,000 a year–that some non-EU migrants must earn if they are to be permitted to work in Britain.
A fresh set of proposals is likely to be unveiled within weeks as the Coalition sets out in detail how it aims to bring down net immigration from outside the European Union to below 100,000 a year by 2015.
The Conservatives hope to seize back the political initiative after their party conference was overshadowed by a row over how an immigrant was able to use his ownership of a pet cat as part of a Human Rights Act ruling to secure residency in Britain.
The most radical of the proposals could see companies for the first time having to publish the nationality of their employees.
David Cameron and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, are to ask the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the level of the minimum income many immigrants from outside the European Union must earn before they are allowed to come to Britain–currently £20,000 a year.
The aim is to have a higher minimum level so that only wealthier people are permitted to come to the UK.
The MAC is also set to be asked to undertake a wholesale review of the system of work visas–which are “capped” so that a maximum of 21,700 skilled and highly skilled foreign employees can use them to come to Britain from outside the EU annually.
There will also be a new drive against sham marriages, which typically involve someone from outside the EU marrying an EU resident in a bid to be allowed to stay in Britain.
The so-called “probationary period” before which spouses and partners cannot settle in Britain will be increased from two years to five years.
The idea of making companies disclose how many of their workers are British, and how many are foreign, is likely to meet with resistance from employers who say it could increase bureaucracy and lead to a backlash.
Ministers believe, however, that such a move would be a useful tool in aiding public transparency on the issue. Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, said in a speech last week to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that the government’s “first responsibility” was to help unemployed British workers.
The proposals come at the end of two separate Home Office immigration consultations–one on employment-related routes to settlement in Britain and one on family migration
Both are aimed at breaking the link between temporary migration, often related to employment, and permanent settlement–with ministers keen to encourage what they term the” best and brightest global” talent to the UK while doing more to deter other groups.
The family migration review also looked at the contentious “Article 8” of the European Convention on Human Rights which has allowed foreign criminals to avoid being deported on the grounds that they have a right to a “family life”.
At last week’s Tory conference Mrs May vowed to close the loophole opened by Article 8 in the wake of campaigns, including one launched byThe Sunday Telegraph. In doing so she sparked the “catgate” row with her cabinet colleague Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, when she claimed that a Bolivian illegal immigrant could not be deported because he and his partner had a pet cat.
Some of the details of the government’s proposals may be outlined by Mr Cameron in a speech on immigration he is preparing to give on Monday.
Earlier this year he pledged to reduce net migration–the difference between those coming to Britain and those leaving it–to the “tens of thousands” a year.
However, the most recent figures issued by the Office for National Statistics showed how far the coalition still has to go, with net migration rising by 21 per last year to 239,000.
The renewed focus on measures to clamp down on immigration reflects fears at senior Government levels that current measures are unlikely to have the necessary effect on bringing numbers down–as well as a recognition that the issue is still close to the top of list of concerns cited by voters in opinion polls.
Ministers have tried to pin the blame on Labour’s record, with Mr Green accusing the party, during its 13 years in power, of “talking tough and acting weak” and allowing the problem to “spiral out of control.”
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, has admitted Labour made mistakes–particularly by not bringing in the current “points-based” regime for migrants earlier than 2008. However she has branded the coalition’s targets “unworkable” and accused ministers of “making promises they can’t keep.”
A decision to axe 5,000 jobs at the UK Border Agency will also greatly hamper the fight against illegal immigration, Ms Cooper argues.
The 21,700-a-year limit on work visas, set in February this year, was one of the first steps towards achieving the Coalition’s promised reduction in net migration.
By setting a minimum required income for skilled workers coming in through this route, the Government intended to protect lower-paid jobs so they could be filled by British workers rather than by imported labour.
Migrants must also work in particular trades where the MAC has identified skills shortages in the domestic labour market, based on feedback from industry and other bodies.
However, when drawing up the new rules, ministers controversially decided not to count in the total migrants who arrive in Britain through the “intra company transfers” system. This decision potentially allows companies to bring tens of thousands more non-EU staff into the country without derailing the Government’s attempts to hit its target–and trade unions have said the decision means that British workers are still being undercut by lower-wage foreign rivals, particularly in the computer industry.
Reducing the number of people coming to Britain under the “family route” is politically difficult for ministers because of the wide Commonwealth links and pressure from immigrant communities already settled in the UK.
But on sham marriages, a recent Home Office consultation proposed a number of additional measures, including combining some of role of local registrars with UK Border Agency functions, and tougher requirements for foreign nationals seeking to marry in the UK.
Last year 40,500 foreign nationals were allowed to come to Britain because of their romantic links here. A further 11,600 foreigners who were already living here under other types of visa switched to the romantic option, claiming they wanted to remain in Britain “for love”.
This second category is the main source of “sham marriages” where vows are taken with a phoney partner–who is often paid to take part–so a foreigner can stay in Britain much longer than they are entitled to.