Home Secretary Amber Rudd has said she is looking at tighter controls on foreign workers and overseas students as a way of “changing the tide” of public opinion on immigration.
British firms were “getting away” with not training local people and tougher recruitment tests were needed, she told the Conservative Party conference.
Students on “low-quality courses” could also face tougher entry rules.
She also announced £140m to help areas with high levels of migration.
The new Controlling Migration Fund will help councils in England deal with the pressure on public service, such as the NHS and housing, from immigration.
The Conservatives promised to introduce the fund in their 2015 election manifesto, having abolished a similar fund set up by the last Labour government in 2011.
Theresa May has said she is still committed to reducing net migration to “sustainable” levels below 100,000 a year even though David Cameron failed to meet the target between 2010 and 2015, with net migration recently exceeding 300,000.
Ms Rudd, who campaigned to remain in the EU during the referendum, said immigration had brought benefits to the UK but the difference between those settling in the UK and those leaving was “too substantial” and that the Brexit vote had shown British people demanded action.
Although this would not happen “overnight”, she said only a substantial reduction could help “change the tide of public opinion… so once again immigration is something we can all welcome”.
“I come here today with a warning to those that simply oppose any steps to reduce net migration,” she said. “This government will not waver in its commitment to put the interests of the British people first
“Reducing net migration back down to sustainable levels will not be easy. But I am committed to delivering it on behalf of the British people.”
Launching a consultation on entry rules for foreign workers and students, Ms Rudd said the tests that employers had to undergo before recruiting from abroad had become “tick-boxing exercises” and too often resulted in British citizens being discriminated against.
“The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do,” she said. “So I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers.”
‘One-size fits all’
While she was committed to attracting the best students from around the world, she said the current system too often “treated every student and university as equal” with insufficient consideration given to the contribution they could make to the UK against the obligations they placed on the state.
“Foreign students, even those studying English Language degrees, don’t even have to be proficient in speaking English. We need to look at whether this one-size-fits-all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country.
“And we need to look at whether this generous offer for all universities is really adding value to our economy. This isn’t about pulling up the drawbridge. It’s about making sure students that come here, come to study.”
On the new migration fund, she said: “The fund will build on work we have done to support local authorities… to stop giving housing benefit to people that have no right to be in the country… to reduce rough sleeping by illegal immigrants… and to crack down on the rogue landlords who house illegal migrants in the most appalling conditions.”
In her speech, she also defended the troubled public inquiry into historical child sexual abuse, saying the UK “needed answers to questions that have for decades been swept under the carpet”.
She also announced the public would have the right to challenge sentences for terrorist offences if they believed they were “unduly lenient”.
The government is extending the Unduly Lenient Sentencing (ULS) scheme – under which people can ask the attorney general to look again at sentences where they believe a mistake has been made – to cover all terrorist offences sentenced in the Crown Court and enable people to take cases to the Court of Appeal.