Spotlight on the UK’s points-based immigration system

Alex Christen examines how the scheme is working nearly two years after it was introduced

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After free movement ended between the UK and the EU last January, the UK’s newly refreshed points-based immigration system aimed to simplify the process for recruiting overseas workers while allowing the ‘the brightest and best’ to work in the UK. 

While the points-based immigration system still encourages employers to see if they can recruit UK nationals, changes were designed to make it easier for employers to sponsor those from outside the UK. 

The system still needs the individual to score points by speaking English (in most cases) and by being offered a skilled job by a sponsor that pays the right wage. However, one of the key benefits of the new system is that applicants can trade points in certain situations (for example, if they are aged 26 or below, or if they have a PhD in a STEM subject that is relevant to the vacancy), allowing a reduced salary to be paid. This was designed to help employers that may otherwise struggle to sponsor people if the salary for the vacancy did not meet Home Office expectations.  

The ‘shortage occupation list’ has also been reviewed in the past few months (and will be reviewed again soon). This is a list of roles that are short staffed in the UK. If a role is on this list, again a reduced salary can be paid. In response to the issues faced by the healthcare sector following the pandemic and Brexit, some care roles were added to the list to help businesses recruit into these vacancies.

With no cap on the number of skilled workers that can be employed, the definition of ‘skilled work’ has been reduced from graduate-level jobs to jobs rated A-level or equivalent. Gone also is the requirement for businesses to prove they could not recruit a UK national into the role first before offering it to someone based overseas.

Outside of the ‘skilled worker’ route, the system has also introduced new visa routes. The ‘high potential individual’ route, for example, allows those who have been awarded a qualification by a top university in the past five years to work in the UK in any role without a prospective job offer or licensed sponsor. The route is designed to attract talent to the UK, but the list of eligible universities has been criticised as being too narrow. Other visas include various global mobility routes (although we question whether they offer true mobility into the UK in the same way as other countries have done with remote working visas) and a visa for those looking to work in scale-up companies. 

But has the new system truly benefitted those looking to live and work in the UK? It’s still too early to tell. Shortly after the immigration rules were revamped, the world went into lockdown and migration took a back step. Many of the old immigration issues remain.

For most routes, UK businesses must have a sponsor licence. Getting a sponsor licence is still a costly and time-consuming process. Licence applications are taking around eight to 10 weeks, or more, to process. And  there are ongoing compliance obligations that can be difficult for businesses to understand and therefore follow. 

Compliance is crucial; penalties for failure to comply with immigration rules are severe and can lead to a sponsor losing their licence (reducing their ability to employ non-UK nationals). Employers are strongly encouraged to stay up to date on immigration law, carry out the requisite right to work checks, and seek legal advice where required.

Alex Christen is a business immigration lawyer at Capital Law