Theresa May was criticised by business leaders over her plans to curb immigration after Brexit as she said the new system would stop EU workers being able to “jump the queue”.
The Prime Minister told the CBI’s conference in London the post-Brexit system will be based on skills rather than where migrants come from.
But CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn said firms needed time to adapt to the “seismic shift” in the immigration system and claimed the Government was not paying attention to the concerns of businesses.
And NHS recruiters fear the new system could cut off the supply of overseas nurses and carers.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Prime Minister’s language was “offensive” and “disgraceful” while the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt also criticised Mrs May.
The UK plans to end free movement after Brexit, subjecting EU nationals to the same immigration requirements as the rest of the world.
In her keynote speech, Mrs May said: “The United Kingdom is a country that values the contribution that immigration has made to our society and economy over many years.
“And in the future, outside the EU, immigration will continue to make a positive contribution to our national life.
“But the difference will be this: once we have left the EU, we will be fully in control of who comes here.
“It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi.”
The new system will be “built around the talents and skills a person has to offer”.
But Ms Fairbairn said: “Government may be listening to business when it comes to immigration, but they still aren’t hearing.
“Free movement of people is ending and a new immigration system represents a seismic shift – one that firms across the country need time to adapt to.
“A false choice between high and low skilled workers would deny businesses, from house builders to healthcare providers, the vital skills they need to succeed.
“The best way to build public confidence is through a migration system based on contribution, not numbers.”
Businesses in sectors which rely on low-skilled workers, such as hospitality, manufacturing and the care industry, have raised concerns about the impact of restrictions on labour.
Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chairman Mike Cherry said: “One in five small employers rely on staff from the EU. More than one in three say finding the right staff is currently holding back growth.
“If they’re lumbered with complex paperwork and a surcharge to bring in EU staff post-Brexit, that will cause a significant drag on the billions they contribute to the economy each year.”
Danny Mortimer, NHS Employers chief executive, warned the planned changes could cut off the supply of nurses.
“We know we need to increase the number of UK trained health professionals, especially nurses,” he said.
“The recommendations on salary thresholds and having no need for a so called ‘lower skilled’, lower wage, route into the UK would cut off the supply of nurses from overseas and there would be no mechanism for employing people into care worker roles.
“It would be completely unacceptable to allow vital social care services to close under the strain of not having the people required to provide the necessary care.”
Downing Street defended the plans.
Asked whether Mrs May regarded EU nationals currently working in the NHS and other public services as having “jumped the queue”, the PM’s official spokesman said: “We have always been clear of the important contribution which EU citizens make to our economy and to public services.
“The point the Prime Minister is making is that we wish to have a global system where people’s skills are the basis on which they are able to work in the UK.
“At the moment, we have two systems in place – one for people coming to the UK from outside the EU and one for people coming out under the rules of free movement. It’s a fact that people coming under the system of free movement don’t need a visa and those from outside the EU do.”
The spokesman said an immigration white paper setting out the proposed new system was due to be published “shortly”.
The Scottish First Minister said: “Stopping EU citizens ‘jumping the queue’ – that the case for Brexit has been reduced to such a miserable and self defeating bottom line is depressing in the extreme. Let’s lift our sights higher than this.
“Actually, the more I think about it, the more offensive ‘jump the queue’ is as a description of a reciprocal right of free movement. Really disgraceful.”
Mr Verhofstadt said: “EU citizens living, working, contributing to UK communities, didn’t ‘jump the queue’ and neither did UK nationals in Europe.
“They were exercising rights which provided freedom and opportunities. We will fight to ensure these continue in the future, especially after any transition.”