The government’s points-based immigration scheme has passed its second reading in parliament, despite concerns it will be too restrictive for key sectors including care, food production and supermarkets.
The bill, which passed by 351 votes to 252, is the first step to ending freedom of movement within the EU and will create a framework for the government to bring in tougher immigration rules outlined earlier this year – which include requirements for an A-level equivalent education and a minimum earnings threshold of £26,500.
The new immigration system is expected to come into force in January, after the transition period finishes at the end of December.
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Home secretary Priti Patel (pictured) said the proposed system was “firmer, fairer and simpler” and would “lay the foundation for a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”.
However, the government has come under fire for pushing through the changes at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is already making it difficult to fill key worker roles – many of which would be considered lower-paid and ‘unskilled’ under the new system. Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow home secretary, described the new immigration policy as “not fair and… not in the national interest”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 yesterday, Thomas-Symonds said: “[The government is] deeming people who are low skilled to be unwelcome in this country. That isn’t an acceptable way to proceed. We see the clap for carers on a Thursday evening; it is wrong to then say on a Monday that you are unskilled and that people with those skills are not welcome in this country.”
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Employers have also raised concerns about the bill. Several business leaders, including former Siemens UK CEO Juergen Maier and economist Vicky Pryce, signed a letter to Patel yesterday (18 May) warning of the damage this extra bureaucracy would do to small and medium-sized businesses. The letter, published by the Independent, said: “Preparing for the new system was already a huge challenge for employers, even before we were also facing the coronavirus pandemic.
“Many of us will have to adapt our recruitment policies, enhance our HR functions and adjust our budgets to reflect the big extra costs of visa fees, the immigration skills charge and the immigration health surcharge.”
Speaking to People Management, Chetal Patel, partner at Bates Wells, said the immigration bill would make it harder for key workers to get the points they needed to work in the UK. “Jobs listed on the government’s list of critical workers such as care staff, delivery drivers and supermarket workers wouldn’t meet the lowered skills threshold. These are essential roles that underpin our society in a time of crisis, yet they won’t be acknowledged in the new immigration system,” she said.
She also questioned the timeline of the bill, noting that there were just seven months left until the end of the Brexit transition period. She warned businesses reliant on EU labour were “going to be hard hit”.
“Current government fees for a non-EU worker to be sponsored by a small or medium-sized business are approximately £5,000 for a five-year visa. With revenue for many businesses having plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, these high visa fees are going to be a bitter pill to swallow,” she said.
Gary McIndoe, MD and founder of Latitude Law, also raised concerns that the coronavirus outbreak had pulled employers' attention away from immigration preparations. “We were advising a lot of businesses about sponsor licensing before lockdown, and then all of a sudden it ceased to be a priority,” he said.
Under the new immigration system, employers looking to bring in workers from abroad – including from the EU – will need a sponsor licence to use the points-based system. However, the hiatus in activity around this caused by the outbreak could lead to licence applications submitted at the end of the year that are not properly prepared, McIndoe warned.
“An extension of the implementation period because of the health crisis would be in the country’s best interest,” McIndoe said. He added that the home secretary did not appear to agree, however: “[Priti Patel has] got an eye on what she thinks is the public mood but not really on business and the potential negative impact.
“What’s come into focus in the last couple of weeks has been the importance of lower-skilled workers – the cleaners and the care workers. They’re just not catered for by the sponsor licensing and sponsored work schemes.”