In February, the Government published a policy statement on the new points-based system for immigration. The new system is due to take effect in January 2021, when EU free movement law has ceased to apply in the UK. Some of the Government's plans are similar to proposals in the May Government’s December 2018 immigration white paper, and recommendations made by the independent Migration Advisory Committee. But some of the ideas in the policy statement differ to both of those.

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What will the new system look like?

Many of the details about the proposed new system are still not known.

As with the current system for non-EU immigration, the new system is collectively referred to as a “points-based system”. But the information published so far suggests that only two of the specific categories in the new system are truly points-based (i.e. have a degree of flexibility over how points can be acquired). One of these will be a new route for highly-skilled workers without a job offer. This is still being developed and is not expected to be ready to launch next January.

The other is the route for sponsored skilled workers (the replacement for the current Tier 2 General visa). A lot of the debate about the new immigration system has focussed on this visa category. The main changes that the Government are making to this visa route are:

  • Introducing a new tradeable points test to determine eligibility for a visa
  • Reducing the minimum salary and skill thresholds
  • Lifting the restriction on the number of visas available

The new immigration system is likely to incorporate some other existing visa categories, such as for students and youth mobility visas. It is not yet known whether their eligibility criteria and associated conditions will change.

The Government anticipates that the new system will lead to lower levels of immigration, but there is a considerable degree of uncertainty about this.

Controversially, the Government does not intend to provide general visa routes for self-employed or lower skilled/paid workers, or to allow regional variations in visa eligibility criteria.

Reactions from employers

Stakeholders have broadly welcomed the changes to the sponsored skilled worker visa category. But the minimum salary and skill level requirements, and absence of provision for low-paid workers or self-employed people are key concerns for sectors previously highly reliant on EU workers to do work deemed to be low-skilled, low-paid or seasonal work, such as health and social care, construction, agriculture and food processing, and tourism and hospitality. There have been warnings that gaps in the system might perpetuate risks of labour exploitation and illegal working.

Questions have been asked about whether the use of national salary thresholds, and the absence of any concessions for lower-income regions, will result in a system which favours employers in higher-earning areas and undermine the Government’s agenda to ‘level up’ less affluent regions.

Similarly, there are concerns that, unless the costs and bureaucracy associated with sponsoring work visas are reduced, small and medium businesses will be priced out of using the system.

Many stakeholders have expressed alarm about the short timeframe for implementing the new system, and the ongoing absence of clarity over aspects of its design. These have been exacerbated by the broader uncertainty generated by the negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, and unfolding effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on businesses and the broader economy.

Library paper CBP 8838 Post-Brexit immigration system proposals: responses from stakeholders, 3 March 2020, collates some stakeholders’ immediate responses to the February 2020 policy paper.

What happens next? Further consultation and timescale for implementation

The February policy statement said that more detailed information about the new system would be published “shortly”. A ‘programme of engagement’ with stakeholders was due to commence in March 2020.

The “first phase” of the new system is scheduled to be in force from January 2021. Some visa categories are due to open to receive applications from August 2020. Employers are already being encouraged to begin the process of applying for a visa sponsorship licence if they anticipate recruiting migrant workers from next year and do not already have one.

Some of the proposed new visa categories are not expected to be ready to launch in January 2021. It is also expected that the system will be further modified after the initial launch.

The Government has not signalled that it is re-thinking any of its plans for the new system or the launch timetable in response to the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Parliament’s role in approving the new system

The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill will soon have its second reading in the Commons. The Bill has been described as ‘paving the way’ for the introduction of the new points-based system. Specifically, it will legislate for the ending of EU free movement law in UK law. This will enable EU citizens arriving in the UK after the end of the Brexit transition period to become subject to the same immigration requirements as non-EU nationals.

The structure and detail of the new immigration system will be introduced through changes to the Immigration Rules, rather than in primary legislation. The Immigration Rules have a status similar to secondary legislation, and their parliamentary approval process is similar to the negative procedure. Some stakeholders are calling for Parliament to have a greater role in scrutinising immigration rule changes.

Alongside developing the new immigration system, the Home Office is simultaneously working on a comprehensive overhaul of the Immigration Rules and associated guidance. It intends to have a newly-consolidated and simplified set of Rules ready to launch at the same time as the new immigration system next January.

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