The Government plans to implement a new immigration system from 1 January 2021.
Their proposals, set out in the White Paper: The UK’s future skills-based immigration system, are subject to consultation. Employers need to understand what is proposed, so they can anticipate how to meet future recruitment demands.
EU free movement rights will end by 31 December 2020 at the latest. EU nationals will be subject to the same visa system as other migrants.
The end of free movement means more employers will require a sponsor licence. Therefore, the Government hopes to broaden, simplify and speed up this visa route. In particular they plan to remove the cap on the number of Tier 2 visas awarded.
Many sponsors are frustrated by the bureaucracy of the resident labour market test. Although this is meant to ensure settled workers are prioritised for vacancies, the reality is that if an employer is determined to recruit a skilled migrant they can usually find a way to do so. In many cases even if the role is not deemed to be in national shortage, it may be locally and so running adverts for 28 days is futile. The proposal to remove this hurdle is, therefore, welcomed.
Instead, the Government wishes to use cost to deter employers from recruiting migrants. The Immigration Skills Charge will be retained, to incentivise training of local workers rather than paying for migrant workers.
Currently, sponsors can only support visas for roles deemed to be skilled to RQF level 6 or above (degree level). The proposal is to lower the minimum skill level to RQF level 3 (A level). On the face of it this will broaden the type and number of roles that can be sponsored. However, this is tempered by the Government’s confirmation that there will be a minimum salary level for sponsorship. The Home Secretary has suggested this should be maintained at £30k, which rules out even some RQF level 6 jobs, especially outside London and in the public sector. The minimum salary is subject to consultation.
A new temporary short-term work route would allow migrants to do any job (with no minimum skill level or sponsorship required). But they would be limited to 12 months in this category, followed by a 12 month cooling off period. This is to address concerns raised by employers in a wide range of sectors, who are currently reliant on EU nationals to fill lower skilled roles. However, it could also be used by highly skilled migrants.
This is a transitional measure, to give the economy time to adjust to a post-Brexit world. It will be fully reviewed by 2025 and may actually be suspended earlier depending on economic conditions. There would be restrictions on numbers. Visas would be required and application fees are expected to increase incrementally each year. In addition, ‘it will only be open to migrants from specified low-risk countries’.
Migrants would be free to move between employers during the year of their visa. This flexibility should help protect them from abuse and encourage competition between employers. However, there would be no right to bring dependants, settle in the UK or access public funds. This may be seen as a way of supressing net migration and reducing the burden on local services. But concerns have been raised that the proposed rules will lead to even greater integration problems; a high turnover of workers could exacerbate problems in some areas.
Youth Mobility Scheme
The Government wishes to continue the current Youth Mobility Scheme, which allows migrants from designated countries up to age 30 to work freely in the UK for up to two years. More countries could be added to the scheme, for example EU countries. This may help employers fill temporary vacancies for lower skilled work.
Agricultural Workers Scheme
A small-scale pilot of this new scheme has already started and will be reviewed before deciding if it should be expanded.
The Government intends to improve post-study work rights for migrants who complete a degree in the UK. They would be allowed to work for six months post-Bachelors or Masters and 12 months post-PhD. Concessions which facilitate switching to skilled work visas would also be expanded.
Importance of consultation
It is essential that employers participate in the consultation process, in particular regarding the minimum salary level for skilled work visas and the maximum duration and cooling off period applicable to temporary work visas. Otherwise there is a risk that promises to soften the rules will have little impact in practice.