Businesses would be stopped from easing staff shortages by hiring cheaper overseas workers under immigration plans unveiled by Labour.
Sir Keir Starmer said he wants to scrap rules that allow firms to pay 20% below the going rate to hire overseas workers for jobs on the shortage occupation list.
Healthcare, engineering and IT are among the sectors where someone can be paid 80% of the usual going rate to qualify for a skilled worker visa.
Labour leader Sir Keir’s pitch to ensure firms hire UK staff came at Prime Minister’s Questions ahead of the release of figures expected to show record levels of net migration.
“Why does he think his Home Secretary seems to have such a problem coping with points-based systems?”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak replied: “Just this week we announced the biggest-ever single measure to tackle legal migration, removing the right for international students to bring dependents, toughening the rules on post-study work, and reviewing maintenance requirements.
“But what is (Sir Keir’s) contribution? There are absolutely no ideas… absolutely no semblance that there would be any control. Why? Because he believes in an open-door migration policy.”
Sir Keir asked Mr Sunak if he thinks his policy is encouraging businesses to train people “here or hire from abroad”?
He said: “The reason they are issuing so many visas is labour and skill shortages. And the reason there are shortages is the low-wage Tory economy.
“Under his Government’s rules, businesses in IT, engineering, healthcare, architecture, welding can pay foreign workers 20% less than British workers for years and years on end. Does he think his policy is encouraging businesses to train people here or hire from abroad?”
The Prime Minister replied: “He talks about immigration but we know his position because it turns out that Labour would actually like to see even more people coming to the UK, increasing the numbers.
“It’s not just my view, those are the words of his own frontbencher who said ‘having a target is insensible and that the numbers might have to go up’.”
Sir Keir went on to accuse Mr Sunak of delivering policies which are “holding working people back”, adding: “But fear not because speeding into the void left by the Prime Minister comes the Home Secretary, not with a plan for skills, growth or wages, no, her big idea is for British workers to become fruit pickers just in case – I can’t believe she said this – ‘that they forget how to do things’.
“Does the Prime Minister support this ‘let them pick fruit’ ambition for Britain or does he wish he had the strength to give her a career change of her own?”
Sir Keir countered: “The Home Secretary may need a speed awareness course, he needs a reality check.
“This mess on immigration reveals a Tory party with no ambition for working people and no ambition for Britain, just the same old failed ideas – low wages and high tax.
“Labour would fix the apprenticeship levy, fill the skills gap and stop businesses from recruiting from abroad if they don’t pay properly.”
Mr Sunak said it was unclear how Sir Keir would do any of these things, adding: “Every week we hear a lot of empty rhetoric from (Sir Keir) but in the past week we can measure ourselves by actions.”
He highlighted Government action to curb protests, strike action and to respond to small boats crossing the Channel, adding: “What has he done? He’s voted against every single one of those and that’s the difference between us: whilst he’s working on the politics, we’re working for the British people.”
Their exchanges came after former prime minister David Cameron urged ministers to use welfare reforms and training programmes to reduce the need for foreign labour.
Mr Cameron, who never met his own goal of bringing net migration down to the “tens of thousands”, said he has sympathy with Mr Sunak and Mrs Braverman as they address the challenge.
The Government is seeking to reduce legal migration while under pressure from businesses to ensure there are not labour shortages in key industries.
Figures being published by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday are widely expected to show net migration running at a record high.
Analysis by the Centre for Policy Studies forecasts net migration could have hit between 700,000 and 997,000 for the year ending December 2022.