Employers have been told they will “need to adjust” to strict new immigration rules by investing in retaining staff and productivity-boosting technology, as the government confirms there will be no special post-Brexit visas for low-skilled workers.
Outlining more details of the points-based immigration system due to come into effect on 1 January next year, the Home Office has said there will be no specific route for low-skilled visas, and all applicants will need a job lined up and a salary of at least £25,600.
Under the new system – which the government is calling a ‘single global system’ because it will treat EU and non-EU citizens equally – skilled workers will be awarded points based on relevant criteria such as meeting the salary threshold, specific skills and the ability to speak English. Only applicants who have enough points will be granted a visa.
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As expected, the education threshold will be dropped from degree level to A-level or equivalent.
A statement from the Home Office insisted “employers need to adjust”, and suggested investing in staff retention, productivity and technology and automation would help employers “move away from a reliance on the immigration system”. It is estimated 70 per cent of the existing EU workforce would not meet the new requirements.
Priti Patel, home secretary, said: “We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down.”
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In addition to the points-based system, the government said it will expand its pilot seasonal workers scheme in time for 2020. This will see the UK’s agricultural seasonal workforce increase from 2,500 to 10,000 places.
Gillian McKearney, head of UK Immigration at Fieldfisher, said the announcement confirmed many employers’ fears that the UK government was not planning to introduce temporary routes for low-skilled workers. But, she added, employers can still use the UK’s EU settlement scheme to plan for the transition.
EU nationals arriving before 31 December 2020 can continue to live and work in the UK until 30 June 2021, and remain after that date if they apply for settled or pre-settled status in time. “Practically speaking, employers can use these dates to flex their recruitment efforts to ensure they have a stable workforce for business needs and also plan staffing levels and how to fill gaps," McKearney said.
The Home Office announcement follows the release of new data showing the number of non-UK born people in the workforce reached a record high in the final quarter of 2019.
The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed 5.81 million non-UK born people were working in the UK for the final quarter of 2019. It also recorded a surge of individuals born in the EU working in the UK. This increased by 133,000, marking the largest annual rise since the first quarter of 2017 and pushing the total to 2.44 million.
However, Gerwyn Davies, senior labour market adviser at CIPD, said he was sceptical about the figures. He suggested these actually showed “relatively modest” increases compared to the middle of the decade, and that the number of EU nationals in employment had hovered around the 2.3 million mark for the past two to three years.
“It's too early to tell whether EU citizens will see January 2021 as the deadline for coming into the UK to live and work before they have to face the points-based system. We need to see sustained increases over three or four quarters to draw a firm conclusion that EU nationals are coming to the UK in increasing numbers to meet the 2021 deadline,” he said.
Chetal Patel, partner at Bates Wells, said the latest ONS workforce figures showed there was a “growing awareness that the door through which workers of all skill levels can come to the UK is closing”. She warned this latest change to immigration policy would be “more severe and there will be more casualties” compared to previous attempts to reduce migration.
“While the government acknowledges the new system will bear significant changes for employers, my concern is that the suggestions of a more streamlined and simplified route will not go far enough,” she said.
Patel added that businesses could expect new visa routes to open ahead of time this autumn and urged employers that wanted to bring either EU or non-EU workers to the UK from 2021 to ensure they had applied for a sponsor licence. But she warned getting a licence was more complicated than a tick-box exercise.
“Businesses need to have the correct systems in place to comply with their sponsor duties and need to have key people within the UK organisation to administer the sponsorship process,” Patel said. “This is by no means easy and smaller businesses with tighter purse strings or less infrastructure may struggle.”
Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK, also urged employers to apply to become approved sponsors, warning that tens of thousands of employers could each need a licence just to hire one EU citizen from 2021.
“The Australian points-based system on which the UK framework has been modelled could prove to be a red herring as the MAC has twice concluded that it will not suit the UK,” Beech said.
He added that it would be a case of “waiting to see” how the new points-based system works as it evolves. “In the meantime, employers are advised to start forecasting and planning ahead of this autumn if they plan to sponsor EU workers,” he said.