British businesses that rely on low-skilled European workers face a possible post-Brexit crisis after the government ignored their calls for continued access to migrants for lower-paid jobs.

Home Office immigration proposals published on Wednesday focused on attracting what home secretary Priti Patel called “the brightest and best from around the globe” via a points-based immigration system prioritising higher paid and better qualified workers from overseas.

The new rules are due to take effect from January 2021 and will create a substantial challenge for sectors such as social care, construction and the food processing industry, all of which had lobbied for continued greater access to low-skilled migrants from EU countries.

UK businesses have employed millions of low-skilled workers under the EU’s free movement rules since the bloc expanded to encompass poorer central and eastern countries in 2004. Some 3.2m EU citizens have already applied for “settled status”, which will allow them to remain and work in the UK when the 11 month post-Brexit transition period ends on January 1.

Ms Patel called Wednesday’s announcement as “a historic moment for the whole country”.

“We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down,” she said.

However, Unison, the trade union, warned the plans would represent “a disaster” for the social care sector, where many of its members work.

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“Companies and councils can’t recruit enough staff from the UK so have to rely on care workers from elsewhere,” said Christina McAnea, the union’s assistant general secretary. “Suddenly ending this desperately needed supply of labour will cause huge problems across the country.”

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, the employers’ group, said businesses would welcome “several aspects” of the new system, including the end to the current cap on visas for skilled migrants and restoration of the option for graduates to work for two years in the UK after they complete their studies. .

But she added that in some sectors companies would be “left wondering” how they would recruit the people needed to run their businesses. “With already low unemployment, firms in care, construction, hospitality, food and drink could be most affected,” she said.

A white paper detailing planned legislation on immigration is expected in March. The plans published on Wednesday adopt many recommendations proposed last month by the Migration Advisory Committee, the government’s advisers on immigration policy.

They include a cut in the salary threshold for skilled migrants seeking work in the UK from £30,000 a year to £25,600 in most cases, and a relaxation in the qualification needed, from a university degree to A-levels or their equivalent.

But the proposals will sharply reduce the labour pool for UK businesses, which are currently free to hire nationals of the European Economic Area — the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein — for any job. From January 1, only workers qualifying for the skilled migration route will be eligible for most posts.

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The main exception to is a proposed expansion of the trial seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme, from offering 2,500 visas a year to 10,000. However, the provision is still likely to dismay many agricultural businesses since the sector currently brings in between 60,000 and 70,000 workers annually, mostly under the EU’s free movement rules.

“We will . . . end free movement and not implement a route for lower-skilled workers,” the Home Office’s policy document said. “UK businesses will need to adapt and adjust to the end of free movement within the points-based system.”



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