The new UK points-based immigration system: a balanced view

Will the new UK points-based immigration system attract the ‘brightest and best’ or does it unfairly discriminate against much needed ‘low-skilled’ workers? David Sapsted explores the ramifications of the new proposals and reactions from industry experts.

Image illustrating an article about the new UK points based immigration system
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When it comes to the UK’s new points-based immigration system, there is one mantra that government ministers never tire of repeating – when freedom of movement from the EU ends on 31 December 2020, they chant that Britain will be open to “the brightest and the best” from all over the world.That, though, assumes that these brightest beings speak good English, have attained a high level of education, will be paid at least £25,600 and – except in the case ofthe exceptionally talented – have an approved job offer in the UK.“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,” says Home Secretary Priti Patel. “We will attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleashing this country’s full potential.”

The new points-based system excludes 'low-skilled' workers 

Yet many economists and business leaders are questioning whether the new system will really boost the economy, simply because there is absolutely no provision for workers who are deemed to be ‘low skilled’ to obtain a visa to work in the UK (except for 10,000 seasonal agricultural workers). The government maintains that this can be overcome by utilising automation, productivity increases and by employing British labour, even though employment levels in the country are at an all-time high.But Philippe Legrain, the founder of the international think-tank OPEN and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute, believes the bar on low-skilled workers will damage, not boost, the economy. “The economic cost of its new skills-focused, points-based immigration policy is likely to be large,” he says.“The British economy is reliant on immigrants to do jobs that not enough locals are able – or willing – to do. Structural demand for types of workers in short supply in the UK is compounded by a cyclically tight labour market. Even though the economy has stagnated since the Brexit vote in June 2016, the unemployment rate fell to a mere 3.8%.”
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The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has similar concerns. Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the organisation’s director-general, has applauded the fact that, under the new system, there will be no cap on the number of skilled visas. She has also welcomed the introduction of a post-study work visa for overseas students, which will enable them to stay in the UK for two years after completing their studies, and the reduction of the minimum salary threshold from the current £30,000. But she adds, “Nonetheless, in some sectors firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses. With already low unemployment, firms in care, construction, hospitality, and food and drink could be most affected.“Firms know that hiring from overseas and investing in the skills of their workforce and new technologies is not an ‘either or’ choice – both are needed to drive the economy forward,” Dame Fairbairn adds.Spring Issue 2020 out now

Regional visa proposal for the UK rejected by the government 

There are also fears that, although reduced, the £25,600 salary threshold still might be too high to attract the skills needed in regions where overall wage packets can be much lower than in London and South East England.The government has rejected the idea of regional visas to cater for specific skills shortages and salary differentials – a decision bitterly attacked in Scotland where an ageing population and low birth rate has made the economy particularly reliant on overseas labour.A survey published in February by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) found that one in five SMEs in Scotland could either close or be forced to radically alter their business models because of future to difficulties in recruiting EU workers. Some 40% of small businesses in Scotland employ at least one EU worker, compared to the UK average of 26%.The FSB has backed Scottish Nationalist plans for a separate visa system tailored to Scotland’s specific needs, branding the UK government’s bar on low-skilled workers as a “concerning prospect”.

In brief: The UK government's immigration proposals 

  • All those applying for a visa to live and work in the UK will need to have a job offer paying a minimum of £25,600, although workers who earn above £20,480 will be eligible iftheir job is on the government’s Shortage Occupation List (SOL), such as nursing, or they have a relevant PhD.
  • Applicants will also need to reach a 70-point mark under the new points system, which has three ‘must have’ criteria:
    • a job offer from an approved sponsor (20 points)
    • a ‘required skill level’ (20 points)
    • and a command of English (10 points)
  • A salary earning above the £25,600 threshold will earn another 20 points, as will a job on the SOL. A PhD can pick up 10 more points and 20 more if it is in a STEM subject. The existing annual cap of just over 20,000 on the number of Tier 2 visas for skilled workers will be scrapped.

For more information, visit our Immigration hub

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