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Suella Braverman to rebuff cabinet calls for easing of visa rules

Thousands of Britons should be trained to drive trucks, work in the meat industry and gather crops rather than filling vacancies with foreign workers, Suella Braverman will tell Conservative activists Today (15 May).

In an intervention that will be seen as a rebuff to cabinet colleagues calling for an easing of visa rules to boost economic growth, the home secretary will say there is no good reason to bring in overseas workers to compensate for shortages in the haulage, butchering or farming industries.


Her speech comes amid a growing row within the cabinet and the Conservative party over net migration, as Rishi Sunak braces for a record increase in net migration figures this month. Reports have claimed that the figure could reach close to 1 million, from a record-breaking level of 504,000 last year.


While the prime minister and Braverman have reiterated calls for net migration to be reduced in the long term to the tens of thousands, ministers including the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, and the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, have been keen to stress the economic benefits of issuing visas for workers in key sectors and students.


Braverman will tell the National Conservatism conference that she campaigned for Brexit so that the government could control migration.


“We need to get overall immigration numbers down. And we mustn’t forget how to do things for ourselves,” she will say.


“There is no good reason why we can’t train up enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers. Brexit enables us to build a high-skilled, high-wage economy that is less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour.”


The National Conservatism conference, a three-day event in Westminster beginning today, has been organised by a US-based thinktank to bring together right-leaning public figures, journalists and scholars. It is the eighth conference launched by the Edmund Burke Foundation. Speakers will also include Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Frost.


Foreign butchers are eligible to come to the UK as a skilled trade, under current rules. Poultry workers were eligible as seasonal workers in the run-up to Christmas, and fruit pickers are eligible for seasonal worker visas. HGV drivers were eligible for special visas during the petrol crisis, but have been dropped from the list.


The Home Office is being lobbied to ease restrictions on foreign workers by the HGV, butchering and farming industries, departmental sources said.


A leading migration expert questioned whether Braverman’s suggestions would affect overall migration.


Madeleine Sumption, the head of the Oxford Migration Observatory, said: “The elephant in the room is the health and care sector, which made up more than half of long-term skilled worker visas last year. The government has quite a lot of control over this sector, since it funds training places and sets, or otherwise directly influences, pay.


“If the government wants to reduce overseas recruitment, it has policy levers it could pull – at a cost, of course – such as addressing the funding crisis in social care,” she said.


The National Farmers’ Union said the government’s attempts to recruit UK fruit pickers – a campaign called Pick for Britain – had failed to recruit enough domestic workers. Its deputy president, Tom Bradshaw, said: “The NFU will continue to ask for a minimum of a five-year rolling seasonal agricultural worker scheme and a longer nine-month visa to give growers the confidence to invest in their businesses, and boost Britain’s production of fruit and vegetables.”


Reports have suggested that official data will show annual net migration to the UK of between 650,000 and 997,000.


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures are to be published on 25 May and are expected to pile pressure on Sunak over the government’s 2019 pledge to bring down net immigration to “tens of thousands”, which he reiterated last year.


Whitehall sources said the figure would be less than 1 million but would still be a significant increase.


The Office for Budget Responsibility has said legal migration would help offset slower growth in productivity, while Hunt acknowledged in November that it was “very important” to the economy.


Speaking on Sky News on Sunday, the energy secretary, Grant Shapps, stressed the importance of post-Brexit controls on work visas.


“We have a migration advisory committee that says there’s a shortage in this area or that area,” Shapps said.


“One of the advantages now with Brexit is we have control over our own policies. So we can say we want people to help with a specific sector.


“We should always make sure that we only have people come here that our rules and our policy bring here.”


It has been reported that Braverman and Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, had raised concerns at cabinet in recent weeks about the levels of legal migration.


To see off a feared backlash from MPs and the wider Conservative party, ministers are drawing up plans to stop family members from joining overseas master’s students at British universities. But their demands have been briefed against by Treasury and Department for Education sources.


Braverman had attempted to get cabinet approval for plans to reform the graduate visa route, which now allows for graduates to stay in the UK for two years – along with their dependents – without a job. The proposal, however, was “killed off” by Keegan, according to the Times.


The home secretary had tried to cut the period to six months, and require graduates to get a work visa by employment in a skilled job.


In the autumn, Braverman attempted to revive a Conservative pledge to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands despite the failure of successive governments to hit the target.


In her speech to an audience of rightwing Tory party members, Braverman will also claim that people on the left have tried to stop her from reiterating facts about legal and illegal immigration.


“It’s not xenophobic to say that mass and rapid migration is unsustainable in terms of housing supply, public services and community relations.


“Nor is it bigoted to say that too many people come here illegally and claim asylum, and we have insufficient accommodation for them.


“I’m not embarrassed to say that I love Britain. No true conservative is. It’s not racist for anyone, ethnic minority or otherwise, to want to control our borders.


“I reject the left’s argument that it is hypocritical for someone from an ethnic minority to know these facts; to speak these truths,” she will say.


The MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, who is speaking after the home secretary, is expected to push for a tougher line on immigration.


In an apparent call for Conservatives to stop relying on other states for goods and labour, he will say: “In failing to support our critical foundation industries through economic policy, and by importing cheap goods from abroad, we have not only increased our dependence on questionable foreign states and reversed our balance of trade, we’ve robbed whole communities of the economic engine that provided quality, high-status employment.”


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