The government’s plans for tackling migration after Brexit represent a backwards step for employers hoping for an end to uncertainty and a more streamlined process, some experts have warned.
Home secretary Sajid Javid said the mooted rules, unveiled in a policy paper, were tailored to ensure businesses had “access to the skills they need from around the world.” They include new stipulations on how a skills-based regime will be introduced to cover both EU and non-EU workers after the end of the post-Brexit transition period in 2021, and arrangements for temporary workers.
“This will allow all businesses to have the staff they need as we move to the new immigration system but ensure they have the incentive to train young people in the future,” said Javid.
“We are taking a skills-based approach to ensure we can attract the brightest and best migrants to the UK. These measures will boost our economy and benefit the British people.”
Skilled workers coming to Britain under the new immigration system will have to be sponsored by a company and will be subject to a minimum salary threshold. The independent Migration Advisory Committee recommended this be set at £30,000, which many claimed would cause issues in sectors such as care that rely heavily on lower-paid staff. The government has now suggested it will consult further on this issue “over the next year”.
The new visas would entirely replace the current 20,700 annual limit on “high-skilled” workers coming to the UK on Tier 2 visas, and would apply to both EU and non-EU nationals.
There will also be a transitional temporary worker scheme, which will allow EU nationals and those of any skill level from “low risk” countries to come to Britain without a job offer for up to 12 months at a time.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said it was vital the government made the new system easily navigable for businesses hoping for an end to uncertainty. “Just the act of ending freedom of movement and introducing a work visa system for EU nationals, however flexible that system is, is likely to put a sharp brake on EU immigration given the extra costs and bureaucracy the system will place on employers and individuals,” he said.
“Consequently, plans to streamline the process, making it easier for employers to sponsor migrant workers eligible to work in the UK, will be key to the system being much more user-friendly for organisations of different sizes and across different sectors.”
Willmott added: “Given future restrictions on EU migrants coming to live and work in the UK, the government must ensure that UK skills policy genuinely supports and encourages employers to invest more in how they manage and develop their people. We need to see a fundamental review of the apprenticeship levy to make it a more flexible training levy so employers address genuine skills shortages and boost investment in lifelong learning.”
Kerry Garcia, immigration specialist and partner at Stevens & Bolton, said the announcements were broadly helpful to those who employ and sponsor non-EEA nationals, particularly in highly paid and highly skilled roles. However, she added: “Employers who rely on EEA nationals, and particularly lower paid and lower skilled workers, will be disappointed as the new system looks likely to be far less accommodating as well as more burdensome and costly.
“In many cases, it appears likely that employers will not be able to rely on overseas nationals to fill lower skilled roles and will need to start looking at recruitment and training strategies over the next year or two, to try to encourage more British workers to apply for such jobs.”
The 12-month visa for temporary workers is projected to last until 2025. Proposals also suggested there would be no limit on the number of “genuine international students” who could come to the UK to study.
But some commentators were concerned there were not specific exemptions for the NHS and other key industries – something the government subsequently said it would examine – while others were unhappy there was no stated target for the overall level of migration under the new regime.
Lord Green, chair of the Migration Watch think tank, said: "It is shocking that the government should have caved in so completely to the demands of industry while ignoring the strong public desire to get immigration down.
“The chief winners will be business, as they exploit the bonanza of a huge new pool of labour from around the world while continuing to avoid their responsibility to the public to recruit and train up local talent."
Others pointed to the increased burden on business that would be required by a more far-reaching system. Garcia said: “It is likely that thousands more employers will need to register as sponsors. This also involves taking on onerous record keeping and reporting obligations.
“The current Tier 2 system is administratively burdensome and it is all too easy for employers to breach Home Office guidance unwittingly and face losing their licence. The white paper also recognises that any small and medium sized businesses will never have engaged with the current sponsorship system.
“The white paper acknowledges this burden on employers and states that the new system will need to be straightforward, light touch and business friendly. It remains to be seen how this will be achieved in practice.”