Following the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 January 2020, the Government pledged to overhaul the UK’s policy on immigration, adopting an “Australian-style” points-based system (“PBS”), screening foreign workers, with priority being given to those “with the highest skills and the greatest talents”. On 19 February, the Government released a policy statement outlining the proposed PBS which will take effect from 1 January 2021, applying to EU and non-EU nationals alike. The new system will introduce a few noteworthy changes, with a significant impact on the current tier 2 work visa route.
Skilled workers – with a job offer
In line with the recommendation of the Migration Advisory Committee (“MAC”), the current tier 2 framework, based largely on sponsorship, will be modified. It may be worth noting that the policy statement makes no specific reference to “tiers”.
Under the proposed system, sponsored workers will still be required to show that they have a job offer from an approved sponsor, English language skills and are working at a certain skill level. The Government has, however, reduced the skill level required from level 6 (graduate level) to level 3 (A-level) in line with the MAC’s recommendation. In addition, there will continue to be a minimum salary required for a work visa. The current salary threshold is £30,000 but this is set to be lowered to £25,600. A degree of flexibility is given here as this figure will no longer be the absolute minimum. Workers earning between £20,480 and £25,600 are still able to get a visa provided they are highly qualified or working in a job listed on the “Shortage Occupation List”.
One notable change introduced by the proposed system is that workers will be able to “trade” characteristics, such as their specific job offer and qualification, against a lower salary. A total of 70 points is required to be eligible to apply. A table of the points attributable to each characteristic, as well as a list of the relevant characteristics, is available on the UK Government website.
Highly skilled workers – without a job offer
The Government intends to extend the Global Talent visa (which replaced the Exceptional Talent visa on 20 February 2020) to EU nationals, who will be able to apply from January 2021. To be eligible to apply under this scheme, an individual must have the required level of points and be endorsed by “a relevant and competent body”, i.e. a body with expertise on the relevant topic.
Separately, the policy statement discusses the possible creation of a “broader unsponsored route within the PBS to run alongside the employer-led system”. Concerns have been raised that this could potentially lead to an “Australian-style” system. Of all the “Australian-style” rhetoric which has come from the Government, this proposal would, at first glance, appear to represent something to that effect. However, the Government’s subsequent indication that it would introduce a cap on this route, allowing for only a “small number” of individuals without a job offer, appears to backtrack further. In stark contrast, in reality the Australian system has no such cap and assesses on (somewhat fairer) merit-based criteria.
Furthermore, it appears that the Government has taken into account the MAC’s warning of implementing a truly points-based visa and “avoiding past mistakes” (an apparent nod to similarly structured routes, such as the “tier 1 (general) route”, which closed to new applicants in 2011 following concerns that too many migrants using this route were failing to secure employment or only obtaining low-skilled work), as further proposals for this route are due to be considered in the coming year.
The Government’s current stance does not provide for a new route for “lower-skilled” workers. The policy statement provides that: “UK businesses will need to adapt and adjust to the end of free movement… employers will need to 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”.
The so-called “reasoning” behind this is that there are already a large proportion of existing EU residents who have applied for/been granted settled status to remain in the UK post-Brexit. In the Government’s view, this is more than are apparently required to “provide employers with flexibility to meet labour market demands”. The Government has, however, expressed its strong commitments to the agriculture sector by expanding the pilot scheme for seasonal workers to 10,000 places from 2,500. Whilst this new policy may benefit some, it will have a significant impact on recruiters in the hospitality, construction and care sectors (the so-called “low-skilled sectors”), who recruit a significant number of EU workers.
Provision for changes to be made to student visa routes in the policy statement is fairly limited. In sum, students will be covered by the PBS and will have to show that they have an offer from an approved educational institution, speak English and are able to support themselves during their studies.
What’s to come?
The extent to which the Government proposals truly represent an “Australian-style” PBS is questionable to say the least. The policy statement, the entirety of which can be accessed on the UK Government’s website, provides only a brief outline of the Government’s proposal.
The Home Office is expected to publish more detail in due course and, in any event, in advance of January 2021.
Darren Cox, trainee solicitor, Latta & Co