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  • General Immigration

Coming to the UK from 2021: new immigration policy announcements and what they mean

Overnight the government released several policy statements which address the UK’s planned ‘new’ Points Based immigration system. The aim is to introduce the system from January 2021, just over 10 months away. This does not represent much time to devise & implement a completely new immigration scheme. If the new system is to be workable, it must be clear and concise. The current Immigration Rules are comprised of 55+ parts & appendices; clearly, we do not have time for that. 

It is encouraging to see the government state in policy that they will “guard against making the system too complex”. However, this is somewhat undermined by the repeated references to reviews and ‘enhancements’ to the system which will be made over time. It remains to be seen just how straightforward the new scheme is, all the more important after last month’s report by the Law Commission in favour of simplifying the Immigration Rules. 

The phrase “Australian-style Points Based immigration system” is used often by our current government. They know that it is well received by the electorate, who assumes that this means more difficult provision to those we currently have. The prized Points Based elements of the new scheme are communicated as follows,

“It will assign points for specific skills, qualifications, salaries or professions and visas will only be awarded to those who gain enough points.”

Broadly speaking, we already operate a scheme on these terms, so this really represents nothing new. There are some innovations – for example an ability to rely on a lower salary level if other criteria are met – but this is no revolution in UK immigration policy. 

What is far more important for the UK and how it does business is the plans relating to ‘lower skilled’ migrants:

“The government has listened to the clear message from the 2016 referendum and the 2019 General Election and will end the reliance on cheap, low-skilled labour coming into the country.”

‘Low-skilled’ is a phrase I have never felt comfortable with; it is elitist and feels offensive, as well as being a poor description of the roles that are bundled into this definition. I have a university education and perform a highly skilled role, but this absolutely does not mean that I also have the skills to work as a successful joiner or as a care worker. The skills required for those roles are different, but are of equal value to mine. 

‘Low-skilled’ roles tend to be in sectors such as social care, hospitality, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, etc. To reduce the prevalence of migrant workers in these sectors, expect to see implementation of sledgehammer tactics rather than finely sharpened policy points. Put simply, the government plans to price workers out or categorise that their jobs are not sufficiently skilled. The minimum salary threshold for a sponsored employee under the new scheme will be set at £25,600 (with some exceptions). This is not new for those non-EU migrants already sponsored to work in the UK, but when free movement ends and there is parity in the provisions applied to the EU and non-EU workforce, that requirement will have profound effects. 

There is nothing wrong with a general plan to increase worker wages across the board – it would be encouraging for (for example) residential care workers to be paid £25k+ a year – but the reality is that currently they are not. There is a simple truth that the UK has more vacancies in the social care sector than UK applicants looking for those jobs. Industry leaders repeat this message across multiple sectors; Pret A Manger has previously reported that only one in 50 applicants for their vacancies are British. 

The government’s response to this is that the UK should train its workforce better; Priti Patel has said this today. She reports 8 million people between the ages of 16 and 64 as being “economically inactive”, a figure somewhat at odds with the current reported unemployment rate of around 4%. While it cannot be denied that UK workers should have access to vocational training and a fair opportunity to secure work, the new immigration system takes effect in less than one year. That is an extraordinarily short period of time to allow employers to adjust.

The government’s estimate is that 70% of the existing EU workforce will not meet the requirements to come to the UK from 2021. Note that this does not refer to EU nationals who are unemployed here, it is employees who – when they stop work – cannot be replaced. Some extra measures will be introduced to address immediate shortfall – we have a seasonal workers scheme in the agriculture industry for example, which is increasing from 2,500 to 10,000 places for the 2020 harvest. There is no planned reprieve for industries such as hospitality or social care.

New student routes will be opened for EU/Swiss students form 2021 also. It is essential that those work well. European students have not needed visas before, and UK institutions really rely on welcoming foreign students because they pay much higher tuition fees that their UK counterparts.

The policy statement includes two important points for employers. Firstly, confirmation of guidance on right to work checks, “Employers, landlords and public service providers will continue to accept EU citizens’ passports and identity cards as evidence of their immigration status until 30 June 2021.” Secondly, advice for those who know they will need to sponsor migrants from 2021, “Employers not currently approved by the Home Office to be a sponsor should consider doing so now if they think they will want to sponsor skilled migrants, including from the EU, from early 2021.”

There is little point ignoring the fact that I am likely more pro-immigration than others. Every day in my professional life I meet amazing and hardworking people who do nothing but contribute to and enrich UK society. The new scheme assumes that less migration must equal major benefits, but I still see no confirmation of what these are or how they will be achieved. The rhetoric, the policy, the concept of ‘closing the door’ is small minded and disappointing. Some of the UK’s greatest achievements have been driven by immigrants, and by making our world smaller, we risk causing major harm to ourselves.