A law to introduce a new post-Brexit immigration system for the UK has been given initial approval by MPs.
The immigration bill repeals EU freedom of movement and introduces the new framework – though not exact details – for who can come to live in the UK.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the government’s plans will lead to a “high skill” economy.
But critics said the coronavirus pandemic has changed public attitudes towards those considered “unskilled”.
The House of Commons approved the general principles of the law by 351 votes to 252 on Monday. It will now go on to receive further scrutiny.
The legislation will put EU and European Economic Area (EEA) citizens on an equal footing to immigrants from outside the bloc.
It also paves the way for the government to introduce a new points-based system, which some say will affect the ability of care workers to come to the UK.
The government announced proposals for the new system, suggesting points will be awarded for being able to speak English to a certain standard, having a job offer from an approved employer, and meeting a salary threshold of £25,600.
Other points could be awarded for certain qualifications and if there is a shortage in a particular occupation.
Speaking in the Commons, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the earnings of frontline workers do not reflect their contribution to society.
“Those who clapped [for carers] on Thursday are only too happy to vote through a bill that will send a powerful message to those same people – that they are not considered by this government to be skilled workers,” he said.
“Are shop workers unskilled? Are refuse collectors? Are local government workers? Are NHS staff? Are care workers? Of course they are not,” he said.
The Scottish government’s immigration minster, Ben Macpherson, has also written to Ms Patel, asking her to “pause and reconsider” the plans, saying the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the need for immigration in frontline services.
Introducing the bill in the Commons, the home secretary said: “The current crisis has shone a light on how we value those who provide compassionate care across health and social care.”
Ms Patel said the changes in the bill “will play a vital role in our recovery plans for the future”.
“It will end free movement and pave the way for a firmer, fairer and simpler system and will attract people we need to drive our country through the recovery stage of coronavirus, laying the foundation of a high wage, high skill productive economy,” she said.
The legislation, the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill was first introduced in December 2018, but stalled amid a series of defeats for then PM Theresa May’s minority government.
The bill is now being reintroduced to the Commons with Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority, meaning it is likely to pass.
The plan for a new points-based system will need to be separately approved by Parliament, and it is not clear how soon the formal changes to the current rules will come before MPs.
‘Heart-breaking misunderstanding about importance of care workers’
Karolina Gerlich arrived in UK from Poland 12 years ago and has been working in the social care sector ever since.
She now works as the executive director of the Care Workers Charity, but says the points-based system the government plans to bring in would have ruled her out from coming to the country “and supporting as many people as I have”.
Ms Gerlich tells the BBC she is “angry” about the proposals, saying: “I think it’s terribly heart-breaking that there is this level of misunderstanding about the importance of what care workers do, and the contribution that social care makes, both to the economy and to society in general.”
She says the sector is “quite heavily dependent” on foreign workers, and limiting who can come to the UK based on their wages could be “disastrous”, especially after the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’ve had over 130 care workers die because they were working on the front line,” says Ms Gerlich. “And it is going to be more difficult for the sector to recruit after the crisis. With so many people dying, why would anybody dream of going into work in care now?”
In February, Ms Patel said people applying to come to the UK under the proposed system will need to meet strict skills criteria.
“We will no longer have the routes for cheap, low-skilled labour that obviously has dominated immigration and our labour market for far too long in this country,” she said.
A YouGov opinion poll commissioned by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) suggests 54% of people now support looser immigration controls for workers regarded as essential during the pandemic.
The government list of critical workers during the crisis includes care staff, food processing staff, supermarket workers, and delivery drivers.
JCWI’s Satbir Singh said such workers “are not ‘unskilled’ or unwelcome, they are the backbone of our country and they deserve the security of knowing that this place can be their home too”.
Former immigration minister and Tory MP Caroline Nokes called for “a more nuanced and intelligent discussion about immigration in this country”.
She told BBC Radio 5 Live: “We need to understand [immigration legislation] needs to be done with compassion and understanding…and we need to move away from the really blunt ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ terms.
“To be quite frank, they are meaningless and actually really rude to those people who we have been so reliant on, not just in the last eight weeks, but for a very, very long time in this country. ”
SNP immigration spokesman Stuart C McDonald criticised the bill, claiming it would “split even more families apart”.
“It’s a bill that will result in many thousands of EU nationals losing their rights in this country overnight and which will extend the reach of the hostile environment still further,” he said.
A visa allowing doctors, nurses and health professionals from overseas to work in the NHS was introduced in March.
The Brexit transition period ends on 31 December – after which the new immigration rules will apply. Irish citizens’ immigration rights will remain.
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