Newly announced ‘points based’ immigration system would make migration to UK harder, say experts

Home secretary’s Australian-style rules could shift allocation of visas away from employers

The home secretary announced yesterday that the government will introduce an ‘Australian style’ points-based immigration system (PBS) once Britain leaves the European Union, which experts have said indicates a move towards a tougher immigration regime. 

In a speech at the Conservative Party’s annual conference on Tuesday, Priti Patel said her mission was to “end the free movement of people once and for all” and introduce a PBS reminiscent of the system used in Australia. 

She told the audience in Manchester she had a “particular responsibility” when it came to “taking back control” after Brexit, and the new system would attract skilled immigrants to the UK. 

Patel added that the system would be “one that works in the best interests of Britain [and] that attracts and welcomes the brightest and the best”.

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However, experts told People Management it was still unclear how such a system would work, and exactly how it would differ from the skills-based immigration system outlined by Patel’s predecessor as home secretary, Sajid Javid, in his December white paper.

Rob McNeil, deputy director at the Migration Observatory, said there was not enough detail yet to say what an Australian-style PBS system would mean for employers.

"It is legitimate for employers to have some degree of confusion over this because there is a level of confusion for those of us who study these issues as we don't have sturdy ground ourselves," McNeil said. "We have heard a lot about an Australian-style PBS, but we are several months away from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) review of how a PBS will work in the UK."

McNeil said Patel’s speech “painted a rather different picture” compared to Javid’s white paper, and that by comparing a future arrangement to Australia’s immigration system, the government was indicating the new system was going to be “tough” and less liberal than the proposals in the earlier white paper.

The white paper, and the home secretary’s announcement, constitute attempts to define how visas will be allocated for workers once any post-Brexit transition period has passed. Any new regime would affect both EU and non-EU migrants. 

The approach outlined in December was based around a minimum salary threshold for incoming workers with no overall cap on their numbers. Theoretically, a move towards an Australian system allows for levels of migration to be carefully calibrated according to demand for different industries and professions, with points awarded for experience, qualifications and professional expertise.  

One area McNeil was confident about was that it seemed likely anyone looking to migrate to the UK would need to have already been offered a job. “The Australian system is broadly seen as not being based on whether an individual has a job offer but rather their characteristics as an individual. But Johnson and Patel’s idea is that a UK PBS would require or prioritise a job offer, which is more like a PBS system in New Zealand or Austria,” said McNeil.

Karendeep Kaur, senior immigration consultant at Migrate UK, said Patel's approach would allow for the UK government to more directly control its borders, as the visa would be granted by a central authority to a skilled migrant, rather than allocated to employers.

"Boris Johnson’s approach, stated earlier this year, has been reiterated by the home secretary – an Australian-style, points-based system that focuses on the ‘brightest and the best’ talent with a special focus on the sciences," Kaur said.

But she added: "This will continue to sideline lower-skilled migrants and those industries experiencing skills shortages." 

Earlier this month, Patel asked the MAC to review how the UK could implement an Australian-style PBS. The review will consider how points could be awarded for areas such as educational qualifications, language proficiency, work experience and willingness to work in sectors or areas that have a shortage of workers. 

The MAC will also review salary thresholds for a future immigration system. It is expected to report back to the government with its results on salary thresholds and propositions on how to implement a PBS by January 2020. However, last month a widespread CIPD survey found most employers were unaware the government had released proposals for a future migration system and had yet to undertake any preparatory work for its implementation.