The Conservatives will reduce immigration to the UK post-Brexit but welcome highly-skilled workers if they win the general election, home secretary Priti Patel has said.
"We will reduce immigration overall while being more open and flexible to the highly-skilled people we need, such as scientists and doctors," she said.
"This can only happen if people vote for a Conservative majority government so we can leave the EU with a deal."
She claimed there would be a "surge" in immigration under a Labour government, which would put a huge strain on the NHS and other public services.
Prime minister Boris Johnson also said: "I have been pro-immigration, but also in favour of control."
Senior Tory figures have so far stopped short of making such a commitment before the party's post-Brexit immigration policy is set out.
Last week, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins repeatedly declined to say whether immigration would be higher or lower under a future Tory government, in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Labour has yet to announce its policy but party leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would commit to "a fair immigration process that recognised the huge contribution made by migrant workers to this country".
"We have got to be realistic about the needs of our economy for bringing workers in, skilled workers in to help us," he added.
Labour’s shadow employment rights secretary Laura Pidcock also said the issue of migrant numbers was a “false flag” and that the key focus for the Labour party should be regulation of employers to prevent exploitation of foreign and homegrown staff.
An SNP spokesman said cutting immigration would be "hugely damaging" for the Scottish economy and called the issue to be devolved to the Scottish government.
The Lib Dems' home affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine also criticised the Conservatives' approach calling it "an insult to the millions who have come to the UK and made it their home".
While Patel did not spell out in detail how the Conservatives planned to cut immigration, the party has said it will end free movement from the EU on 1 January 2021, if they win the election, and get their Brexit deal through by 31 January.
It is planning a points-based system, based on skills and other factors, which would apply to EU and non-EU migrants.
However, the party is expected to ditch its longstanding commitment to cut net migration, the difference between the number of people entering and leaving the country, to below 100,000, after repeatedly failing to meet it.
Security minister Brandon Lewis acknowledged that, by not fulfilling the pledge, the Conservatives had "let people down" and added he would "not be getting in to setting arbitrary targets".
Simon Morris, HR director at DDD Group, said that the debate around immigration is too focused on numbers, rather than the value that employees from other countries bring to organisations.
"The main political debate on this topic often seems to centre around the number of immigrants entering the country. Like many SME businesses, at DDD our business relies on being able to access motivated and skilled employees. We currently have a really diverse group of employees, with about 25 different nationalities represented in our workforce. And we’re really proud to have such a diverse and culturally rich team that reflects the community we’re part of – it’s part of what makes our business feel inclusive and different," he told HR magazine.
"It would be great to see the next government focus on the needs that organisations and businesses have when trying to recruit and retain employees – rather than focusing the debate just on the numbers of immigrants. Whether employees are from the UK, the EU or further afield is less important than finding employees who have the right skills and mindset for our company."
He added that the government should enable organisations to build and retain diverse workforces: "There is an emerging body of evidence to show that diversity in all areas gives organisations a competitive advantage. So whether that diversity comes from different nationalities, genders, background, class, ethnicity or abilities, businesses need to embrace the opportunities that come with diversity, and the government needs to make sure that we have access to a talented and motivated workforce within the UK."
Karendeep Kaur, senior immigration consultant at Migrate UK, said employers should prepare for an Australian-style points-based system.
"Evidently, the Conservative party continues to move ahead with their ‘points-based’ immigration system which focuses on an individual’s skills and English language proficiency. Although they claim to have ‘ditched’ their commitment to cutting net migration, they continue to pledge towards reducing immigration whilst focusing solely on highly-skilled individuals which are a necessity within the UK," she told HR magazine.
"Therefore, [this is] a clear indication to employers that if their industry is not deemed to be among the elite, they can expect their workers to be refused entry. As a result, planning is key. Where possible employers should obtain sponsorship for any future forecasting from non-EU countries, and secure their EU nationals in the UK before 1 January 2021, when the Conservatives claim they will end free movement if they win the December election and pass through their Brexit deal on 31 January 2020."
Kaur added that Labour's delay in outlining a coherent immigration policy is also unhelpful to employers.
"Labour continues to fail on announcing its policy moving forward, which does not assist employers with future forecasting. According to Labour, they will recognise the contribution made by workers in the UK and in response will commit to a fair immigration policy. It is uncertain as to what this policy will be. Whether it will focus on ending free movement, if agreed within the party, or whether it will be to negotiate a better deal with the EU. Either way, the level of uncertainty is not helping employers and current migrants with making a decision on which way to sway at the election stage," she said.
"Our advice remains the same. Continue to plan and prepare for the worst-case scenario – a no-deal Brexit by applying for pre-settled and settled status or, should they qualify, British Nationality, and by 31 December 2020 latest."