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A points-based immigration system allows economic migrants to qualify for work visas based on their personal characteristics and qualifications without necessarily requiring a job offer. The Labour Government introduced in 2008 what it described as a points-based system for non-EU immigration.

Following the 2016 European Union referendum, successive Conservative governments developed plans for unified visa rules to cover both EU and non-EU immigration. The changes that emerged at the end of 2020 came to be known as the new points-based immigration system.

The new system is similar to the ‘old’ points-based system, including an emphasis on employer sponsorship and the retention of most existing visa categories (with some modifications). But freedom of movement from the European Union ended at the same time as the new system was introduced, making EU citizens subject to the visa regime for the first time in decades. This was a significant change in immigration policy.

Changes to visas for skilled workers

A lot of the debate surrounding the new points-based immigration system has focused on the Skilled Worker visa for foreign nationals with a job offer. This replaced the old Tier 2 (General) work permit.

Eligibility for a Skilled Worker visa still requires a job offer and English language ability, but there is now some flexibility on the minimum salary, which can be as low as £20,480. Other significant changes included the reduction of skill thresholds from graduate to medium-skilled jobs; abolishing the requirement to advertise jobs in the UK first; and ending an annual quota. But it remains an employer-led scheme similar to that in place before Brexit, rather than representing radical change.

Since the new system was implemented, there have been significant changes to work visas. These include two new routes for highly skilled workers: the High Potential Individual and Scale-up visas. The incoming Truss Government has signalled that it intends to make further changes to support the Growth Plan 2022. The Labour Party also says it would “control immigration using a points-based system”.

No visas for ‘lower-skilled’ workers

Under the new points-based immigration system, workers cannot be recruited from overseas to fill jobs considered lower-skilled, except for social care and seasonal horticulture. The lack of a generally available route for lower-skilled workers has been controversial among some stakeholders.

How many visas are being issued?

The number of work visas issued in the 12-month period ending in June 2022 was around double what it had been in a typical year prior to the pandemic (331,000 compared with around 168,000 on average between 2014 and 2019). The increase was mainly due to a rise in visas issued to non-EU nationals but also in part due to new EU arrivals now requiring a visa. In total, just under 1.2 million visas allowing residence in the UK were issued in the year ending June 2022, the highest number on record.

Has immigration risen or fallen?

Visa data alone gives an incomplete picture of overall migration patterns. This is because EU citizens previously entered the UK without visas (and those with settled or pre-settled status continue to do so) and we don’t have precise data on the numbers that used to arrive under the old system. The Office for National Statistics is currently revising its methodology for collecting migration data and is not routinely publishing official estimates in the meantime. This means we don’t yet know what the impact of the new system has been on overall net migration.

Further reading on the numbers: How has immigration changed under the UK’s new ‘points based’ system?

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