British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and David Johnston, Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Didcot, Wantage & Wallingford participate in football activities with a local school girls football team at Alfredian Park, home of Wantage Town Football Club, on June 3, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

LONDON: The ruling Conservative party announced plans on Monday for new annual caps on work and family visas to cut immigration after the opposition laid out its plans for the key election issue.

The plan laid out by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is predicted to lose to Labour’s Keir Starmer in the July election, would involve a new cap on the number of visas that would be set by parliament each year.

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Immigration is a highly contentious topic this election with net migration levels soaring to 685,000 last year, a figure that both main political parties have said is too high.

While lower than the figure in 2022, the level of net migration last year was still around three times higher than in 2019, when the Tories won the last election with a promise to slash migrant numbers.

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Over the weekend, Starmer set out Labour’s plans to cut regular migration by banning “bad bosses” who violate labour laws from bringing foreign workers to the country, and by requiring employers to prioritise training Britons first.

With a head-to-head debate due on Tuesday where Starmer and Sunak will face off on key issues for the first time during their campaigns, the prime minister’s new policy seeks to set his party apart from Labour.

“We have taken bold action to cut the number of people coming to this country. The plan is working but migration levels are still too high, so we are going further,” Sunak said in a statement.

“The Conservatives are the only party that is willing (to) take the bold action needed to cut immigration figures,” he added.

The annual cap, which will progressively be lowered each year to cut migration numbers, will not affect foreign students and seasonal workers.

More than 300,000 work visas were given in the year ending March 2024, which is more than double the number granted in 2019, according to official statistics.

The Tory government has introduced new regulations this year to target regular immigration, including barring international students and social care workers from bringing dependents, and hiking the minimum salary for skilled worker visas.

While the tightened regulations led to a huge decline in the number of health and social care visa applications in May, according to interior ministry figures, care providers have warned that the sector is struggling to fill tens of thousands of vacancies.

Labour’s shadow home minister Yvette Cooper dismissed the proposed policy as a “meaningless announcement”.

The government has also targeted irregular migration through its flagship scheme to send failed asylum seekers to Rwanda, which Sunak has admitted will not be implemented before the election.