Theresa May vetoed Cabinet pleas over visa quotas for doctors from overseas to fill empty NHS posts

Theresa May faces a new immigration crisis after it emerged that she overruled Cabinet ministers pleading for more doctors from overseas to fill empty NHS posts.

At least three government departments lobbied for a relaxation of visa rules to let in desperately needed doctors as well as specialist staff sought by businesses, the Evening Standard has learned.

The issue erupted on Friday when several NHS trusts went public about fears that patient safety was being put at risk by doctor shortages.

The crisis came as then home secretary Amber Rudd was fightingfor her political life over the Windrush scandal — but No 10’s hard line meant her hands were tied.

Sources have disclosed that Downing Street was lobbied for several monthsbefore the NHS went public to allow a relaxation of the rules. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Ms Rudd areunderstood to be among those urging No 10 to lift the quota for special cases such as NHS doctors. At the same time Business Secretary Greg Clark was pressing for more exceptions to help firms cope with specialist skills shortages.

A Whitehall source said Mrs May “absolutely refused to budge” when asked to lift the cap in recent months.

“I think Jeremy and Amber were on the same page on this but No 10 were in a different place entirely,” said a separate source. “The cap had been reached for several months consecutively and the pressures on business and the health service were building up.”

The NHS confederation said seven London trusts had reported that 53 doctors had been denied visas. More than 30 health trusts in the North-West have written to the Government demanding that around 100 junior doctors from India be allowed to work in their hospitals and health centres.

New Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who has dropped the language of “hostile environment” towards illegal migrants, will now have to decide whether to challenge Mrs May on the issue. A former Business Secretary, Mr Javid is well aware of business concerns. Non-EU visas are limited in supply under Mrs May’s policy of attempting to reduce net immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Government data shows the quota of Tier 2 visas had been used up for six months in a row and a Migration Advisory Council interim report in March warned that “employers in all sectors are concerned about the prospects of future restrictions”.

The annual limit for these Tier 2 migrant workers is 20,700 but if the monthly total is exceeded then professionals are refused. Skilled-workers in the “shortage” categories are given priority for places. Specialist doctors can qualify, as do NHS nurses, who are in short supply, leaving too few visas for ordinary doctors. Sources at the Home Office said Mr Javid would be looking at the issue in due course. Ms Rudd and Mr Hunt’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said the visa system was being monitored. “It remains essential that we have control in our immigration system and that it works in the national interest,” he said.

“We are monitoring the situation in relation to visa applications for doctors including the monthly limits through the Tier 2 route. Around one third of places go to the NHS.”

Asked whether ministers had asked for the limits to be relaxed for doctors, the spokesman said he did not discuss formulation of government policy.

Tory tensions over Brexit escalated today after the Government suffered a heavy defeat in the Lords. Peers voted by 335 to 244 to give Parliament a decisive say on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox warned the Upper Chamber against “thwarting” the result of the June 2016 EU referendum and insisted it meant that Britain could not remain in a customs union.

But his arguments were swiftly dismissed by leading rebel Anna Soubry. The former business minister said: “The profound irony of Parliament asserting its authority and control and being abused and vilified in the process is breathtaking. It shows how a bunch of ideologically-driven hard Brexiteers will stop at nothing to impose their will on the democratic process against the growing wishes of the people to have a Brexit deal which puts the economy at its heart.”

Nineteen Tory peers backed the amendment which Mr Fox suggested could be a “backdoor mechanism” to delay Brexit. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We can’t have a situation where the clearly expressed will of the people in a referendum is thwarted by effectively procedural devices that would keep us in the EU indefinitely.”

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