Britain's post-Brexit immigration plan gets sidetracked as Corbyn appears to insult May
Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn appears to mouth 'stupid woman' in parliamentary exchange
The British government set out the biggest overhaul of its immigration policy in decades on Wednesday, ending special treatment for European Union nationals while promising to give businesses time to adapt to its post-Brexit plans.
In a long-awaited policy paper on how Britain intends to approach immigration after its exit from the EU, the government said the system would prioritize skilled workers and treat EU and non-EU citizens alike.
Concern about the long-term social and economic impact of immigration helped drive Britain's 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU, but Prime Minister Theresa May's promise to end free movement of the bloc's nationals has left some business leaders worried about the ability to hire the staff they need.
The policy paper did not spell out a specific target for annual net migration, but said it would reduce the number to "sustainable levels as set out in the Conservative Party manifesto." The pledge in that 2017 election manifesto was to reduce the annual number to below 100,000.
There appeared to be confusion within the government after Interior Minister Sajid Javid refused seven times, during an interview, to say whether he was committed to his party's long-standing commitment to reduce net migration to below 100,000 people a year.
"There is no specific target. What we have set out is that it will be a system that will bring net migration down to a sustainable level," Javid told BBC Radio.
"If you look at the current level of migration, the latest stats show 273,000. Most people agree that is very high, certainly by historical standards."
But when May was asked later in the day by a lawmaker in Parliament if she was sticking to the "tens of thousands" target, she responded: "Yes."
May later upbraided Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, after it appeared the Labour Party leader mouthed an insult directed at the prime minister in Parliament.
WATCH: Did Jeremy Corbyn call Theresa May a "stupid woman"?
Corbyn's remark was captured by television cameras after the question-and-answer session that British leaders have to endure every Wednesday.
Corbyn had been peppering May with hostile questions about her decision last week to postpone a vital parliamentary vote on a long-awaited divorce deal with the European Union.
In reply, May had suggested Corbyn might not enjoy the support of his own lawmakers over the EU and, taking a well-worn line from Christmas pantomimes, had said: "I've got some advice for the Right Honourable Gentleman – look behind you!
"They are not impressed and neither is the country!"
Corbyn then shook his head and appeared to mutter "stupid woman" under his breath.
Alerted to the incident, May later told lawmakers
"I think that everybody in this House — particularly in this 100th anniversary of women getting the vote — should be aiming to encourage women to come into this chamber … and should therefore use appropriate language."
Corbyn denied using the term "stupid woman."
"During Prime Minister's Question Time today, I referred to those who I believe were seeking to turn the debate about the national crisis facing our country into a pantomine as 'stupid people,'" he told Parliament later.
"I did not use the words 'stupid woman' about the prime minister or anyone else, and am completely opposed to the use of sexist or misogynist language in absolutely any form at all."
Salary threshold being mooted
With respect to the legislation they plan to introduce on Thursday, Javid said the new rules are the biggest shakeup of immigration regulations in 40 years and will define the labour market for decades to come.
The government will end free movement from other EU countries after Brexit and will hold a consultation over plans for a 30,000-pound ($51,100 Cdn) minimum salary threshold for skilled EU migrants.
Javid said he planned to scrap the current cap on highly skilled migrants from the rest of the world to allow in professions such as doctors and engineers.
The government's so-called White Paper follows a September report by the migration advisory committee that recommended Britain should not give preferential treatment to EU workers.
"We are delivering on the clear instruction to get control over our borders and will bring in a new system that works in the interest of the British people," Javid said.
"It will be a single, skills-based immigration system built around the talent and expertise people can bring, rather than where they come from — maximizing the benefits of immigration and demonstrating the U.K. is open for business."
There will also be a "transitional temporary worker scheme" that would allow EU nationals and workers of any skill level from other "low-risk" countries to come to Britain without a job offer for up to 12 months at a time.
"Our new route for skilled workers will enable employers ... to access the talent they need," Javid said in the foreword to the document.
Javid said the scheme would "ensure businesses have the staff they need and to help employers move smoothly to the new immigration system."
It would be "tightly constrained," the government said, with no rights to settle, bring dependents or access certain public funds, and will be reviewed by 2025 and could be closed if economic conditions warrant it.
Workers under this scheme must leave Britain for a 12-month "cooling-off period" before seeking to return on another temporary worker visa, the policy paper said.
May has yet to win the support of a deeply divided Parliament for the divorce deal she struck last month with EU leaders to maintain close ties with the bloc.
With just 100 days until Brexit, the United Kingdom is on the brink of leaving the EU without a deal, the nightmare scenario for many businesses which are now planning for an economic shock.