Post-Brexit visa regime ‘will not be as restrictive as businesses fear’

Influential think tank says large number of exemptions to current migration system should offer relief for employers

A quarter of all non-EU workers employed on Tier 2 visas are earning less than the £30,000 salary threshold, new data has shown, with experts suggesting it means any post-Brexit migration system is likely to be more flexible for skilled labour than many critics fear.

The data, obtained from the Home Office through a freedom of information request by the Migration Observatory, found 25 per cent of non-EU citizens on a Tier 2 visa were paid less than the cap in 2018.

The Oxford University-based think tank said this showed that although there was officially just one salary threshold, the number of exemptions meant the reality was more complicated thanks to different thresholds covering NHS staff, former students and those aged under 26 applying for their first visa.

It added that the government’s migration white paper – which was published in December 2018 and outlined aspirations for a future post-Brexit migration covering both EU and non-EU citizens – gave no indication a future migration system would be any different, even though it stopped short of specifying salary thresholds.

Businesses have expressed concern that applying the £30,000 threshold more broadly would dramatically restrict their access to talent. But Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, said: “What you see from the current salary threshold is there has been a fair amount of flexibility to allow exemptions from the main level for some workers, whether it’s NHS nurses or young people who generally earn a little bit less when they start work.

“It has been clear for a while that as the government redesigns the immigration system for after Brexit, it would want to revisit what it does for non-EU citizens as well and potentially go for a regime that’s slightly less restrictive. That is essentially what they indicated they would do in the white paper published last year.”

Sumption added that, despite the flexibility, the current system could still be considered a “relatively restrictive regime” as it was developed partly in the knowledge that free movement from the EU would be able to pick up any slack in the labour market.

Gerwyn Davies, senior labour market adviser at the CIPD, added that it was no surprise employers were taking advantage of existing exemptions.

“There has been very strong employment growth in sectors such as healthcare, which are coincidentally sectors which are well-represented on the shortage occupation list – so it’s no surprise that employers are taking advantage of these exclusions to the salary threshold, especially with the backdrop to the fall in UK migration.

“Recruiting from outside the EU is the obvious safety net for NHS employers,” he added.

Davies also said employers would be relieved to see more occupations would be captured by the shortage occupation list following the recent review by the Migration Advisory Committee, but added employers needed to become less dependent on migration for skills.

“This has to be accompanied by more employer investment in skills, which has been declining over the long term and has to be reversed, to ensure that migration isn’t the only solution for employers but a complementary one,” he said.

“This starts with government in terms of providing adequate nursing and doctor places – which it’s working hard to do now – and to do that across the board.”

However, Sophie Wingfield, head of policy at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), said relying on the current exemption criteria after Brexit could be damaging to employers.

“[Our] Report on Jobs data shows that under the current immigration rules there are already roles with a shortage of candidates across a range of sectors including hospitality, logistics and construction. Proposed post-Brexit immigration rules are in danger of exacerbating this,” she said.

“It is essential that policymakers recognise the changing needs of the labour market and allow British employers to access the workers they need in order to continue to prosper and grow.”