By Kylie MacLellan and Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain set out the biggest overhaul of its immigration policy in decades on Wednesday, ending special treatment for European Union nationals in plans criticised by one business group as a "sucker punch" for many firms.
In a policy paper on Britain's post-Brexit approach to immigration, the government said it would prioritise skilled workers and treat EU and non-EU citizens alike.
The government promised to give businesses time to adapt to its new system, but one employers' group warned the government not to "pull up the drawbridge".
Concern about the 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 EU 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's 2017 election manifesto, which was an annual number below 100,000.
Asked by a lawmaker if it was still the government's intention to reduce net migration to this level, May said: "yes".
Skilled workers coming to Britain under the new system will have to be sponsored by a company and will be subject to a minimum salary threshold, the level of which will be set following a consultation with businesses over the next year.
The Migration Advisory Committee, an independent body which gives the government advice, has recommended it should be set at 30,000 pounds but many businesses have said this is too high.
There will not be a cap on the number of skilled workers.
The government has been criticised for taking so long to set out its plans, heightening uncertainty for businesses. Labour's home affairs spokeswoman Diane Abbott said the delay in producing the plans was a "disgrace" that had created concern among EU citizens, their families and employers.
There will also be a transitional temporary worker scheme, which will 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," interior minister Sajid Javid said in the document.
Javid said the temporary workers scheme would "ensure businesses have the staff they need and to help employers move smoothly to the new immigration system".
The temporary workers scheme would be "tightly constrained", the government said, with no rights to settle, bring dependents or access certain public funds. The scheme will be reviewed by 2025.
Workers under this scheme must leave Britain for a 12 month period before they can seek to return on another temporary worker visa, the policy paper said.
Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, said the government was "hell bent" on ignoring the business community on immigration.
"If the government wants to jeopardise the UK economy for the sake of meeting an arbitrary immigration target, it’s going the right way about it," he said in a statement. "If the 12-month work visa idea was supposed to be an olive branch to the business community, it leaves much to be desired."
The government will introduce its immigration legislation to parliament on Thursday.
EU nationals will not need a visa for a tourist visit to Britain of up to six months and Irish citizens will continue to be able to travel and work freely in Britain, the paper said.
The new system will be phased in from the start of the post-Brexit implementation period, currently set to run until the end of December 2020.
(Additional reporting by James Davey and William Schomberg; Editing by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)