As Liberal Cable stokes revolt against Tory election pledge on strict limit, India’s commerce minister warns that the move could have an ‘adverse impact’ on relations between the two countries.
The Daily Mail reports that the ConDem coalition government is ‘at war on immigration’ after Business Secretary Vince Cable, who they say is leading a rebellion against immigration cap, warned the quota could hit the economic recovery.
Vince Cable stoked the Cabinet row over immigration today, suggesting the number of migrants coming to Britain from countries like India could increase, despite a Government pledge to bring in a strict cap.
With Cabinet tensions on immigration threatening to overshadow David Cameron’s trip to India, the Business Secretary tried to calm the political storm around his call Britain to introduce ‘as liberal a policy as possible’.
But although he claimed he was signed up to the coalition deal on the immigration cap, the Liberal Democrat struggled to disguise his unhappiness with a policy he fears could harm business.
Privately he is said to have described the policy as ‘crazy’ at a time when Britain is trying to boost trade to revive its economy.
But treading carefully, he said Mr Cable other ministers and even other countries were free to lobby for the cap to be set at a higher level than was originally planned.
‘Everyone is free to make their arguments about how high the cap should be,’ he told the BBC.
Mr Cable, who is in India with Mr Cameron, is leading a growing rebellion against enforcing a draconian cap on numbers coming into the country, demanding as ‘liberal a policy as possible’.
His call has revealed deep divisions within the Government, with even some senior Tories sympathetic to watering down the policy. They are understood to include universities minister David Willetts.
But the minister’s position has sparked fury among Tory backbenchers, as well as a tense Cabinet stand-off with Home Secretary Theresa May.
The row came as it emerged that immigration and rising birth rates mean that Britain accounted for nearly a third of the growth in population across the whole of Europe last year, with 412,000 added to the UK total.
Downing Street has attempted to play down the tensions by insisting the Cabinet debate is only about the practicalities of how the cap is implemented.
A senior source said the cap was ‘non-negotiable’, adding: ‘It isn’t easy, but it will be resolved’.
But Mr Cable today indicated that he was still pressing for the overall goal of slashing the number of non-EU immigrants to be watered down.
He said it was impossible to give a ‘concrete answer’ to whether the cap would lead to fewer immigrants coming to Britain from countries like India, which are lobbying hard for it to be diluted.
Mr Cable said the plan was still at a ‘consultative stage’, adding: ‘How it operates and the numbers will depend on where that consultation ends up.’
He said other Cabinet ministers had also ‘expressed their views’ on the subject.
A senior Government source said Mr Cable was not alone in opposing the cap. The source said ‘large sections of Government’ shared his view, including some Tory ministers.
The row leaves Mr Cameron facing a divided Cabinet and a difficult summer when he returns to the UK.
Speaking to reporters in Bangalore Mr Cable said: ‘I have made it very clear my job around the Cabinet table is to make the case for business.
‘And business is very clear – we want Britain open for business and want flexibility and we want these regulations, when they come in, administered with a light touch.’
Mr Cameron also sent out mixed messages on immigration, telling an audience of Indian businessmen in Bangalore that he wanted to see ‘more Indians setting up in Britain’.
He also suggested that ‘more Indian students will want to… set up businesses in Britain’.
But the Prime Minister this morning on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme insisted it was still his ambition to reduce annual immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, rather than the hundreds of thousands it hit in the Labour years.
Deflecting tough questions from John Humpfries on how the immigration cap conflicts with Britain’s ‘open for business’ policy, he also said he wants to prevent ‘bogus colleges offering bogus courses’ to students who only want to come here to work in the ‘black economy’.
The Government has imposed a temporary limit on immigration while it considers the level at which an annual cap from non-EU countries should be set.
Theresa May said last month that the measures would bring net migration down to the levels of the 1990s, meaning around 40,000 to 50,000 arrivals each year, rather than the peaks of 200,000 under Labour.
But Liberal Democrats – and some Tories – are arguing that so strict a quota could hit the economic recovery. Some fear the cap could put multinational companies off investing in Britain.
Mr Cable said: ‘I want to ensure the regime operates in a way that it is – and is seen to be – open to obusiness. These days business is global – companies move around and need access to their technical people.
The Business Secretary said he had been lobbied hard by businesses in the UK and countries like India, who want to see the proposals relaxed.
His comments came after he said yesterday: ‘It’s no great secret that in my department and me personally, we want to see an open economy, and as liberal an immigration policy as it’s possible to have.
‘We are arguing, within Government, about how we create the most flexible regime we can possibly have, but in a way that reassures the British public.’
Mr Cable insisted the Government was ‘trying to reconcile two different objectives, one of which is to reassure the British public that immigration is under control, and the other is to have an open economy where we can bring in talents from around the world’.
His intervention prompted a backlash from Right-wing Tory MPs, who said the commitment to reduce net immigration to a level of tens of thousands had been central to their party’s election success.
Mr Willetts is understood to have told colleagues being briefed this week by immigration minister Damian Green that the commitment to get immigration down to tens of thousands a year should be dropped.
Tory MP Jo Johnson, formerly a journalist based in Delhi, who is accompanying the Prime Minister on his India visit, admitted a quota jarred with the message that Britain is open for global business.
‘There is a contradictory message to some extent,’ Mr Johnson said.
But Philip Hollobone, Tory MP for Kettering, said: ‘The last thing the majority of English people want is a liberal immigration policy.
‘As far as most people are concerned, the country is already full up. They would be horrified by Vince Cable’s comments. ‘I was elected by my constituents on the basis that I would stand up for more controls on immigration, not less.’
Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Clacton, said: ‘If you are going to have the sort of open door policy Vince Cable is advocating, it will have some pretty profound implications for our country. It would ultimately do away with our welfare state and NHS.’
He did not, however, say how the NHS would be able to run without overseas doctors, nurses and care workers.
Downing Street has confirmed that both India and Turkey will be consulted on the new rules before they are brought in next year.
Anand Sharma, India’s Commerce Minister, warned last week that the move could have an ‘adverse impact’ on relations between the two countries by preventing business leaders and other professionals from travelling to Britain.
Since the cap was announced several business leaders have warned the immigration quota could leave the country short in vital industries — leaving some areas without adequate medical staff, stalling efforts to meet deadlines to build new nuclear power stations, and leaving care workers needed for a growing elderly population in short supply.
Some warn that the limit is unworkable and that by choking off the supply of foreign workers, the government could stall economic growth and curtail Britain’s recovery from recession.
The care industry is a prime example of a sector which would grind to a halt without non-EU workers.
Recent Tier 2 restrictions and removal of Confirmation of Sponsorhip (CoS) certificates from employers will leave care homes facing staff shortages and workers unable to renew their working visas.
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