Points-based immigration system to prioritise most skilled

The government is to bring in a points-based immigration system from the start of next year, which will give priority to highly-skilled workers but will not offer a general low-skilled or temporary work route, raising concerns about the potential impact on the labour pool

Home secretary Priti Patel said: ‘We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down.’

From January 2021 skilled workers will be required to show they have 70 points under the new system, and will be able to ‘trade’ some aspects, depending on their qualifications and whether or not they are seeking work in sectors which are judged to have labour shortages. 

In line with recommendations made earlier this year by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), an independent non-departmental public body, the salary threshold will be lowered from £30,000 currently to £25,600.

Migrants will still need to be paid the higher of the specific salary threshold for their occupation, known as the ‘going rate’, and the general salary threshold. However, applicants will be able to ‘trade’ characteristics such as their specific job offer and qualifications against a lower salary.

There will continue to be different arrangements for a small number of occupations where the salary threshold will be based on published pay scales.

Requirements for new entrants will be 30% lower than the rate for experienced workers in any occupation, and will only use the base salary (and not the allowances or pension contributions) to determine whether the salary threshold is met.

The government will suspend the cap on the number of people who can come on the skilled worker route and remove the resident labour market test.

All applicants, both EU and non-EU citizens, will need to demonstrate that they have a job offer from an approved sponsor, that the job offer is at the required skill level, and that they speak English. In addition to this, if the applicant earns more than the minimum salary threshold then the individual would be eligible to make an application.

However, if they earn less than the required minimum salary threshold, but no less than £20,480, they may still be able to come if they can demonstrate that they have a job offer in a specific shortage occupation, as designated by the MAC, or that they have a PhD relevant to the job.

Marcia Longdon, immigration partner at Kingsley Napley LLP, said: ‘For some employers, for example in the City, not much will actually change and in fact things have been simplified. It will be welcome that, as promised, the prior advertisement requirement to test that there are no resident workers who can do the job and the cap have gone.

‘Given that European nationals will require sponsorship, it will be the costs and formally having to apply for a visa, which will be more onerous.

‘Regardless of sector, it will be critical for those without a sponsor license to apply for one as soon as possible and we can expect the Home Office to be overwhelmed with a surge of applications as employers gear up to cope with the new system.' 

The new points-based system will expand the skills threshold for skilled workers. Those looking to live and work in the UK will now need to be qualified up to A level or equivalent, rather than degree level under the current system.

The Home Office is to publish further detail on the points-based system in due course, including detailed guidance regarding the points tables, shortage occupations and qualifications. As now, skilled workers will be able to be accompanied by their dependants.

Also from January 2021, the current global talent route will be extended to EU citizens on the same basis as non-EU citizens. The most highly skilled, who can achieve the required level of points, will be able to enter the UK without a job offer if they are endorsed by a relevant and competent body.

In line with the recommendations from the MAC, a broader unsponsored route will be introduced within the points-based system to run alongside the employer-led system. This will allow a smaller number of the most highly-skilled workers to come to the UK without a job offer.

Longdon added: 'What is clear is that companies across the board will need to be more prudent in future about their people and talent planning and there will be a huge cost implication for those recruiting from overseas and administrating visas from next year.’

There will not be specific rules for self-employed people, including artists, entertainers and musicians.

In the policy paper, the government said: ‘We will not be creating a dedicated route for self-employed people. We recognise that there are several professions where there is a heavy reliance on freelance workers.

'They will continue to be able to enter the UK under the innovator route and will in due course be able to benefit from the proposed unsponsored route.’

It is important to bear in mind that these are only proposals at this stage and will undoubtedly be taken into account during the Brexit trade negotiations with the EU. 

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said: ‘It should be remembered that these are proposals and may be subjected to further change while we wait for the publication of a new Immigration Bill towards the end of the year.

‘The government has already responded to third-party comments on how future immigration law should work and may feel that further amendments are needed. Nevertheless, the proposals are a clear indication of what employers can expect and need to be ready for, going forward.’

EU settlement scheme

The policy document also confirmed that EU citizens living in the UK up until 31 December 2020 need to apply for settlement status to remain in the UK. The scheme will close for applications by June 2021.

As a transition measure employers, landlords and public service providers will be able to accept the passports and national identity cards of EU citizens as evidence of permission during this period, up until 30 June 2021. So far, three million have applied for the settlement scheme.

Low-skilled workers

However, under the new system there will be no specific route for low-skilled workers, with the exception of the agriculture sector. The seasonal workers pilot will be expanded in time for the 2020 harvest from 2,500 to 10,000 places.

The government said freelance workers will continue to be able to enter the UK under the innovator route and will in due course be able to benefit from the proposed unsponsored route.

It points out that the UK’s existing rules permit artists, entertainers and musicians to perform at events and take part in competitions and auditions for up to six months. They can receive payment for appearances at certain festivals or for up to a month for a specific engagement, without the need for formal sponsorship or a work visa.

Business organisations have voiced concerns that the proposals will significantly reduce the labour pool for lower skilled jobs in sectors such as care homes, food processing and food retail outlets. From January 1, only workers qualifying for the skilled migration route will be eligible for most posts.

Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general, said: ‘Several aspects of the new system will be welcomed by business, particularly abolishing the cap on skilled visas, introducing a new post-study work visa for overseas students, and reducing the minimum salary threshold from £30,000.

‘Nonetheless, in some sectors firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses. With already low unemployment, firms in care, construction, hospitality, food and drink could be most affected.

‘So careful implementation across all UK nations and regions will be required. A regularly reviewed shortage occupations list, with promises of further flexibility, will be vital for the effectiveness of the new system. Above all, the government must work with employers and employees - especially smaller firms - to ensure they have the time to adapt to new policies and practices.’

The government says it will begin a communication programme in March to raise awareness of the new system, ensuring those affected by the changes are fully aware of what it means for them and understand how the system will operate.

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