Is the UK becoming a less attractive option for potential migrants?

With EU immigration levels declining, any future system needs to be nimble so employers can fill critical vacancies, says Chetal Patel

Immigration has played a major role in previous UK elections and this latest one is no different. Migration policies are central to the current political debate and none of the parties want to attract negative headlines.

The declining levels of EU migration since 2016 is unsurprising; it’s the ripple effect following the EU referendum result and political uncertainty in the UK. But does this decline also suggest the UK is becoming less attractive on the global stage?

While non-EU immigration for work reasons has remained stable over the last two years, there are clear distinctions between those with a job offer and those coming to the UK in search of employment. The figures confirm that 189,459 work-related visas were granted in the year ending September – the highest number for more than 10 years (when the points-based system (PBS) was first introduced in the UK).

‘Work related’ visas include short-term or temporary work, so it’s arguably a broad-brush approach to looking at the figures. It could cover myriad work arrangements even where an individual has only been brought to the UK on a work assignment for one or two days.

More than half of the work-related visas (59 per cent) were granted for Tier 2 skilled work visas – this requires an employer to be registered with the Home Office as a sponsor licence holder and a job offer to be made to a skilled worker. You might expect this figure to be higher, but with visa fees skyrocketing over recent years and immigration compliance for employers now more onerous, this could have deterred sponsorship in some sectors.

Notable trends can be drawn from the work visas issued. For instance, India has long been a leader in the information and communications sectors and Indian nationals accounted for more than half of the Tier 2 visas granted, with 31 per cent granted for roles in the information and communication sector.

Five sectors accounted for 87 per cent of Tier 2 work visas: information and communication (31 per cent); human health and social work activities (24 per cent); professional, scientific and technical activities (16 per cent); financial and insurance activities (10 per cent); and education (6 per cent). Undoubtedly, the removal of the Tier 2 cap for doctors and nurses in 2018 would have played a part in the 72 per cent increase in applications in the health and social work sectors.

Low-skilled jobs

What about sectors traditionally relying on EU workers, such as healthcare, hospitality and agriculture, where there is now a shortage of workers? When the PBS was introduced in 2008, Tier 3 was designed for low-skilled workers, but it was never used. The latest stats do not cover low-skilled jobs as there has been no metric within the current immigration system to monitor this.

Any future immigration system needs to be agile and nimble so employers can fill critical vacancies. The system can’t be aimed only at attracting the brightest and best – it needs to cover all skill levels.

It’s still a waiting game and no one really knows what the future will hold. What government will be in power? Will we have an Australian PBS? All we can do is hope the immigration system is fit for purpose.

The EU Settlement Scheme

Earlier this month the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) experimental statistics were published and, of concluded applications during October, only two applications were refused on suitability grounds. 

While this may appear to be only a small number of refusals, these are experimental stats – meaning, in the words of the Home Office, “they are going through development and evaluation”. So the stats need to be treated with caution. The Home Office is not painting the whole picture as it is keen to show the EUSS is a success. The devil will be in the detail.

While the EUSS was originally marketed by the Home Office as a simple system, there are concerns that it is not set up for the lay person. People are not aware of the precise details of the eligibility requirements under the EUSS. They are currently asked to confirm if they are eligible for pre-settled or settled status, but may be pressing the wrong button in the application and inadvertently accepting pre-settled rather than settled status. The decision on what status should be granted should lie with the Home Office.

Chetal Patel is a partner at Bates Wells