The home secretary said UK businesses would have to change their approach to building their workforce when free movement ends, saying they had become “far too reliant” on “cheap” labour from the EU.
She was speaking days before a government commissioned report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) is to set out proposals for the post-Brexit immigration system, including a review of the proposed £30,000 minimum salary threshold for migrant workers.
Ministers have already signalled they are ready to drop the threshold on the new immigration system, following concern among business leaders that it would prevent workers needed to support the economy from entering the UK.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he would introduce an Australian-style points system after Brexit, based on applicants’ skills and qualifications and the UK’s labour shortages.
He has said migrants will be sorted into three categories: exceptionally talented people such as “nuclear physicists”, who would be granted free entry; skilled workers, who could settle if they had a job; and unskilled workers who would only be granted short-term visas in sectors with skills shortages.
The new rules are expected to be imposed by 2021, two years earlier than promised by Theresa May, giving businesses and workers less than a year to prepare for a major overhaul of the immigration system.
The proposals have been attacked by business chiefs, who warned the limits would create a shortage of staff in sectors such as hospitality, construction and agriculture, while Labour warned the NHS would “not survive”.
Despite the concerns, Ms Patel reportedly confirmed this week that no workers would be exempt from new immigration rules after Brexit despite staff shortages.
Ministers have said, however, the government could be prepared to scrap the £30,000 minimum salary threshold in an attempt to ensure the UK can attract the “brightest and the best” after concerns were raised by businesses.
When asked whether the £30,000 threshold would be scrapped during an interview with Sky News on Sunday, Ms Patel said the government would follow the guidance from the MAC report once it is published.
She added: “We have been abundantly clear … that we are absolutely determined to change the immigration system, end the complexity of the system, have simpler rules, have a points based system, where we can have people that bring the right skills for our labour market.
“The fact of the matter is that we’re leaving the EU which means free movement will end and it means we will be able to control the level of unskilled migration.”
The home secretary went on to say the new rules would allow government to control levels of unskilled migration, and encouraged British businesses to “invest more in the British public” rather than being “reliant on low-skilled and cheap labour from the EU”.