Chancellor Philip Hammond, business secretary Greg Clark, and home secretary Sajid Javid expressed concern that a dramatic reduction in the availability of EU workers would threaten the economy, with May criticised for too doggedly pursuing her longstanding pledge to cut immigration.
Nonetheless Javid said the proposals would “take control” of borders and introduce a system “that works in the interest of the British people”.
The proposed system will bring both EU migrants and those from the rest of the world under the same visa regime, starting in 2021. The £30,000-a-year minimum salary threshold that is already imposed on non-EU workers will also apply to migrants from the EU27.
“It will be a single skills-based immigration system built around the talent and expertise people can bring, rather than where they come from, maximising the benefits of immigration and demonstrating the UK is open for business,” said Javid.
The whitepaper offers some concessions, however. As a result of a cabinet dispute over the proposed £30,000 minimum salary requirement for highly-skilled workers – with final drafts of key passages apparently still passing between departments on Tuesday night – this threshold will be put out to consultation.
It also leaves out the long-held Conservative manifesto pledge to cut net migration to less than 100,000 a year. And it accepts a recommendation from the independent Migration Advisory Committee to scrap the current limit of 20,700 on workers classed as high-skilled coming to the UK using Tier 2 visas.
But housing, communities and local government minister James Brokenshire repeated the 100,000 pledge on Tuesday morning, saying: “We are committed to seeing net migration reduced to those sustainable numbers that we saw back before 1998 when it was less than 100,000.”
Gary McIndoe, managing partner at Latitude Law and a corporate immigration law expert, told HR magazine that while the government “seems to have listened to some of the concerns of industry leaders” the new system will still have a drastic impact on many sectors.
"It appears that Theresa May has had to step down on her personal dedication to reducing immigration to less than 100,000 per annum… And for businesses that currently rely upon skilled immigrants the whitepaper may deliver some comfort,” he said.
“But for those who need generalist workers who have traditionally come from within the European bloc the proposals are likely to offer cold comfort. The challenge for them will be to work out how to continue to resource their business after Brexit.”
He added: "[The whitepaper] appears to represent a continuation of the government's obsessive focus on delivering a Brexit deal that really doesn't benefit anybody, and leaves the UK worse off in terms of our economy and world standing.”
The latest official figures show that net migration from the EU to the UK has slumped to a six-year low, while non-EU migration is at its highest in more than a decade. Overall net long-term international migration was 273,000 this year, down from record levels of 330,000 two years ago.
Earlier this year the government announced foreign medical staff would be excluded from the government's cap on Tier 2 highly-skilled migrants.
But while he recognised "that very welcome short-term action has been taken to support the NHS this year", NHS Employers chief executive Danny Mortimer warned that the "proposals in the immigration whitepaper do not provide a long-term solution to the needs of the NHS across nursing and other professions.
"They continue to confuse high pay with high skill and high value. The staff from the UK and around the world working in the NHS and social care do not command high pay but are hugely skilled and provide vital services to our families," he said.
Karendeep Kaur, immigration analyst at Migrate UK, pointed out that the whitepaper's concessions to business won’t help if there’s a no-deal Brexit. "Today’s long awaited new immigration whitepaper won’t necessarily safeguard EU workers’ future in the UK if Britain ends up with a ‘no deal’ Brexit, or help with the skills shortage," she said.
"While a no-deal would mean no transitional period for EU workers to transfer to pre-settled status, it would also result in a likelihood that companies would immediately be required to hold a sponsor licence, which can take up to four months to secure, and thereafter issue a Certificate of Sponsorship to their employees."
She added: “Now more than ever is the time employers must take immediate action, to help safeguard the skills they need to grow their business in times of uncertainty. To safeguard additional skill shortages, HRs and employers should apply for a sponsor licence now so the business has the correct permitted documentation to employ EU workers whether there’s a deal or no deal."