The Future of the immigration system: room for cautious optimism?

Written on 5 Nov 2019

The government has confirmed that it will implement a complete overhaul of the UK immigration system in January 2021 in light of Brexit and an anticipated end of free movement; but what will this system look like and what can businesses do to prepare for this eventuality?

The White Paper 'The UK's future skills-based immigration system', published in November 2018, gives the best indication on the direction that the immigration system is likely to takein a post-Brexit environment. The White Paper was in response to a detailed report commissioned by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). From what we know so far, the  the immigration system in the future may not look radically different to what is in place now. However, one thing is clear – the new system will apply to all nationalities including EU nationals (who currently enjoy a separate immigration system).

The White Paper suggests a strong desire to streamline the system for workers. It states: "We will replace this [two systems] with a single route which gives access to highly skilled and skilled workers from all countries." A future immigration system that brings everyone under one system would build on the current approach as it applies to non-EU nationals. The paper makes several recommendations, of which many are positive, such as the removal of the resident labour market test, lowering of the required skill level and a reduction of bureaucracy. But, as is the case with public policy, the devil will be in the detail.

Aspects of the proposals in the White Paper have faced significant criticism due in a large part to unease over the reduction in the numbers of lower-skilled workers in a post-Brexit environment. These concerns surround recommendations to retain the minimum salary threshold at £30,000 a year, a one-off,12-month short-term visa for low-skilled workers and the lack of regional considerations. In research conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the regional not-for-profit consultancy Business West, in which our experts were involved, 65% of current EU workers would qualify under the new system in information and communications technology professions, but only 3% would qualify in the agriculture sector.

In September 2019, the government commissioned MAC to review the proposals with a focus on the criticisms that have been levelled at the White Paper. The review is at an early stage with a call for evidence still live. But the announcements from government give scope for optimism; particularly welcome is the review of the salary threshold which is a source of major concern for employers. Furthermore, the specific request to look at an Australian-style points-based system – in which visas are considered on a variety of factors such as age, qualifications, experience and location –has similarities to the previous Tier 1 (General) visa, which was closed in 2012. Along with the recent announcement of the introduction of a post-study work visa, this demonstrates a willingness to learn from previous systems that have worked. (See our  Insight for further details on these reviews.)

Although the political landscape remains in flux and nothing is certain, we believe that the future system will seek to be more responsive to employers and their business needs. In practice, this means that the sponsorship system is likely to open up to many more businesses – as well as individuals seeking to secure work –  and enable them to recruit and retain the most suitable staff, irrespective of their country of origin.

We recommend that all businesses, irrespective of size, undertake a full review of their current staff and, importantly, their likely future staffing needs, in order to prepare for whatever the future holds. Those who do not currently hold a sponsor licence may wish to consider obtaining one, and recruitment policies may need to be expanded to take account of the impending changes.