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Government abandons “Australia-style” immigration system


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The government has released a few more details of what it calls a “points based system” for immigration to the UK after Brexit. To balance out the impending end of free movement of workers from the European Union, it would allow employers to sponsor migrant workers at lower salaries and skill levels than they can today, but with almost no provision for visas for people working in jobs that do not require A-level qualifications or higher.

Absent from the press release and accompanying policy statement is any description of this system as “Australia-style”, previously a staple of government rhetoric. That is at least accurate: the Australian or Canadian version of a points based system allows economic migrants to settle in those countries permanently without employer sponsorship if they have various blends of abilities and qualifications. These proposals go nowhere like that far: they promise only limited discounts to the minimum salary needed for a sponsored work visa, available to people working in shortage jobs or with PhDs.

Today’s proposals are solely to do with economic migration: family migration, asylum and students are unaffected. They are — very optimistically — supposed to come into effect from January 2021.

Skilled workers

The system would introduce a limited element of flexibility in sponsored work visas (currently branded Tier 2, although the language of “tiers” is virtually absent from the policy paper).

Sponsored workers would still need a job offer, English language skills and to be working at a certain skill level. That skill level would be reduced from level 6 (degree) to level 3 (A-level), as was also the case under the December 2018 white paper proposals.

There will still be a minimum salary required for a work visa. The headline salary threshold has been reduced to £25,600, in line with the Migration Advisory Committee’s recent recommendation. But it will no longer be the absolute minimum: some workers earning between £20,480 and £25,600 would still be able to get a visa if they are highly qualified or working in shortage jobs. The table below shows how this would work:

So in effect, the minimum salary for a UK work visa will be £20,480 for people working in jobs on the Shortage Occupation List or who have PhDs in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. It will be £23,040 for people with a PhD outside these subjects but nevertheless “relevant to the job”. For people with none of these characteristics, the minimum will be the headline £25,600.

Example (from the policy paper)

A university researcher in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subject wishing to come to the UK on a salary of £22,000, (which is below the general minimum salary threshold), may still be able to enter the UK if they have a relevant PhD in a STEM subject. Likewise, a nurse wishing to come to the UK on a salary of £22,000 would still be able to enter the UK on the basis that the individual would be working in a shortage occupation, provided it continues to be designated in shortage by the MAC.

All in all, this is much closer to the current framework for economic migration — a Points Based System in name only — than a true points based system, the hallmark of which is flexibility. As John points out, there is no purpose beyond the cosmetic in assigning nominal points to the three mandatory requirements of job offer, skill level and English language. They could just as well be assigned 1,000,000 points each and the points requirement set at 3,000,020.

What of the May-era white paper proposal to scrap the annual cap on these work visas? That does reappear, although the word used is “suspend” rather than “abolish”. The Resident Labour Market Test will also go.

The paper adds:

There will continue to be different arrangements for a small number of occupations where the salary threshold will be based on published pay scales. We will set the requirements for new entrants 30% lower than the rate for experienced workers in any occupation and only use the base salary (and not the allowances or pension contributions) to determine whether the salary threshold is met.

As Joe Owen over at the Institute for Government says, overall this is “almost identical to May’s [white paper] proposal — need a skilled job, speak English at minimum salary. With some flexibility if you’re in shortage occupation. It’s just packaged as points”.

Lower-skilled workers

There will be no visa route for “lower-skilled” workers. This is a change from the 2018 white paper, which had grudgingly proposed a system of 12-month work visas for people who do not meet the skills threshold outlined above. This would have been “for a transitional period after the UK’s exit from the EU”.

The Johnson government no longer considers this necessary. This is primarily an ideological decision:

UK businesses will need to adapt and adjust to the end of free movement, and we will not seek to recreate the outcomes from free movement within the points-based system. As such, it is important that employers move away from a reliance on the UK’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity, and wider investment in technology and automation.

In the meantime, businesses are told to make do with the existing pool of lower-skilled workers. This includes the millions of existing EU residents who have secured their right to remain post-Brexit under the EU Settlement Scheme. They will “provide employers with flexibility to meet labour market demands”.

Such language could almost have been designed to offend European residents, who are also told that the immigration system has been “distorted by European free movement rights”.

The paper also says that “we have committed to expanding the pilot scheme for seasonal workers in agriculture which will be quadrupled in size to 10,000 places”. So there will be visas for strawberry pickers, but not for care home workers.

Highly skilled workers

The Migration Advisory Committee had also said that the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa could be made points-based. Unsurprisingly, since the government introduced unrelated reforms to Exceptional Talent just days later, this recommendation is not followed.

Instead, the paper proposes adding a new “unsponsored route” for the highly skilled alongside Exceptional Talent, with eligibility determined by personal characteristics.

Example characteristics for which points could be awarded include academic qualifications, age and relevant work experience.

This would be much more Australia-style.

But in light of bitter experience — the MAC pointed out that the Home Office itself had come to loathe truly points-based visas like Tier 1 (General) — the paper says that “this route will take longer to implement”. It adds that “we want to learn from previous experience of similar schemes in the UK that have highlighted certain challenges. The scheme will need to be designed to make sure it adds value and does not undermine the skilled worker route or create opportunities for abuse”. It may be doubted whether it will ever come to pass.

What now?

The most telling line of this paper is that “The Home Office will publish further detail on the points-based system in due course”. Further detail is practically overdue already: these broad brush strokes must now be translated into detailed Immigration Rules and procedures in time for January 2021.

The Rules themselves are due for a general rewrite in line with Law Commission recommendations; the policy paper says that the government will be responding to these recommendations “shortly”.

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CJ McKinney

CJ McKinney is a specialist on immigration law and policy. Formerly the editor of Free Movement, you will find a lot of articles by CJ here on this website! Twitter: @mckinneytweets.


5 Responses

  1. So what would be the point awarded to someone with a Master Degree in the STEM? Do we know?