Post Brexit immigration and the proposed points-based immigration system

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On Monday 18 May, the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons. The general principles of the law were approved by 351 votes to 252, and the Bill will now proceed for further debate. Once it becomes law, the Bill will repeal the main provisions of retained EU law relating to free movement, and a new immigration system will come into effect on the 1st January 2021.

Currently EU nationals enjoy the right to freely live and work in the UK. Until 30 June 2021, they also have the right to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme. Under this scheme, they are granted pre-settled or settled status allowing them to continue enjoying their current rights.

From 1 January 2021, free movement will end and give way to a points-based immigration system, proposed by the Government. This will apply equally to both EU and non-EU nationals and be subject to employer-led sponsoring for all non-UK/Irish nationals. The system will transform the way in which all immigrants come to the UK to work, requiring all foreign nationals to attain a score of 70 points in order to do so.

On what basis are the points awarded in order to achieve qualification?

To begin with, a foreign national hoping to work in the UK must be sponsored by a UK-based employer, and achieving this sponsorship qualifies the applicant to receive 20 points. In addition, the foreign national needs to speak English (10 points); and be offered a job at an appropriate skill level, i.e. one which requires A-levels or a higher academic qualification (20 points). All this amounts to 50 points.

So, how does one attain the remaining 20 points? Some of the ways in which the applicant will achieve the additional 20 points to meet the threshold include:

  • a job offer with a salary above £25,600
  • a job offer in an occupation experiencing a labour shortage
  • the applicant holds a PhD in a STEM subject.

Fundamentally, the UK points system is designed to attract skilled immigrants and to bar the unskilled from obtaining a visa, thus making it easier to hire skilled workers from outside the EU but more difficult to recruit unskilled workers.

For skilled workers, the minimum pay threshold currently required of migrant workers from outside the EU will be lowered. This should be welcome news for certain sectors, such as technology, which employ EU and non-EU nationals. There will also be further easing of restrictions for potential NHS and medical sector employees.

However, for EU unskilled workers, the new system will likely make obtaining a visa considerably more difficult, if not impossible. The restrictions will be felt particularly in sectors such as construction, retail, hospitality, farming and social care. Until now, these have relied heavily on EU nationals for unskilled and low-paid labour. Unfortunately, despite many of these workers being indispensable to their sectors, their practical skills do not always correspond to an academic qualification or a salary above £20,000. Equally, these roles aren’t always required in sectors listed as having a labour shortage. The workers in these jobs would therefore have difficulty attaining the requisite points for a work visa and employers would be required to hire locally instead.

How can employers prepare for the changes ahead?

In light of these proposed changes to the immigration system, employers might consider a couple of practical steps:

Only firms holding a sponsorship licence can sponsor foreign workers and the granting of such licences by the Home Office can take a minimum of 8 weeks. The subsequent granting of a work visa to an employee can take a further 3 weeks or more. Employers should therefore expect the whole procedure to take least 4-5 months to complete, if being undertaken for the first time. Given the current administrative problems created by the COVID-19 crisis, the procedure may be further delayed. From 1 January 2021, sponsoring will become a requirement and so firms employing EU nationals should plan well ahead of time in order to obtain all the necessary accreditation.

In order to temporarily avoid the cumbersome sponsoring procedure, small businesses might also want to select EU workers that enter the UK territory before 31 December 2020. In fact, EU nationals and their family members arriving in the UK territory before that date will still enjoy the right to freely work and live in the UK and will be eligible to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme until 30 June 2021.

If you are an employer and need any support with applying for sponsorship licences or wish to talk through any of these issues, please contact me or a member of the team.