Ministers and business chiefs have clashed over immigration, as Rishi Sunak was accused of having no plan to enable the UK to bounce back from recession.
The prime minister is expected to tell the CBI conference that companies must look to out-of-work Britons to fill big labour shortages – rather than expect the government to hand out more visas.
Ahead of Mr Sunak’s speech, the CBI’s director-general, Tony Danker, called for “fixed term visas to plug the gaps until British workers are ready to do the jobs”.
“That’s not how our immigration system works today, and that’s why it’s not helping us with our growth problems,” he told Sky News.
But the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, flatly rejected the CBI’s argument that more overseas workers would help end the economic slump, saying: “I don’t agree with that.”
He said: “Our ambition is to reduce net migration. We think that’s what the British public wants – that was one of the driving forces in the votes to leave the European Union back in 2016.”
Mr Jenrick argued 300,000 work visas were issued last year, but for staff heading for so-called shortage occupations, adding: “That’s the right approach rather than drawing on lower skilled workers.
“If I was a business manager, I would be looking to the British workforce in the first instance, seeing how I could get local people into my business, train them up, skill them to do the job.
“Remember, there are 5 million economically inactive people in this country. And the government’s first duty is to help as many of them as possible into the workforce.”
Mr Danker said there are there are more than one million vacancies in the UK economy – and the 600,000 long-term sick domestic workers “aren’t coming back to the labour market any time soon”.
The speech desperately needed to be “part two of the autumn statement”, he said, warning: “It was all about trying to fight inflation. What it wasn’t about is how the economy is going to grow again.”
Mr Danker added: “I’m hoping we’re going to hear some new ideas from the prime minister about how that’s going to happen.”
Mr Jenrick also repeated that the government has no intention of seeking a “Swiss-style” post-Brexit agreement with the EU, to reduce the trade barriers harming the economy.
“We have a settled position on our relationship with the European Union, that’s the deal that was struck in 2019 and 2020 – and that’s the one that we intend to stick to,” he told TalkTV.
“We don’t want to see a return to free movement, we don’t want to have the jurisdiction of European judges in the UK, and we don’t want to be paying any money to the European Union.”
The UK would seek improvements on trade, security and migration, but, Mr Jenrick added: “There’s no question whatsoever of us reopening the fundamental tenets of that deal.”