Government abandons “Australia-style” immigration system

Today, the government has released a few more details of what it calls a “points based system” for immigration to the UK after Brexit.

Absent from the government 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 level 6 (degree) to level 3 (A-level), as was the case under the December 2018 white paper.

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, but only if they are highly qualified or working in shortage jobs.


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”.

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.

This would be much more Australia-style.

But in light of past experience — the MAC pointed out that the Home Office itself had come to loathe 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”.

Posted on Feb 19, 2020.

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