Immigration White Paper sends mixed messages to employers

The White Paper on the UK’s future immigration system was published on 19 December 2018 and heralds the most significant changes to the UK immigration system for around 40 years. Assuming the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, there will be an implementation period until the end of 2020 (during which the current rules will continue to apply), with freedom of movement ending on 31 December 2020 and new immigration rules expected to come into force on 1 January 2021. It is currently unclear what arrangements will apply to EU nationals wishing to come to the UK to work between 30 March 2019 and the end of 2020 if there is a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.

The key proposal is that the UK immigration system will apply consistent rules to EU and non-EU nationals alike with a focus on skills. This message is, however, somewhat confused by a number of references to exemptions and privileges that will apply to nationals of ‘low risk’ countries, in line with trade deals or reciprocal arrangements that the UK may agree.  As such, the more complex picture presented of the post-Brexit landscape suggests that while the ostensible aim will be to attract the “brightest and best”, in reality a significant premium will be placed on migrants with access to significant capital, high earners, and parallel rules linked to bilateral trade or other international arrangements.    

The White Paper is something of a mixed bag in relation to the recruitment of workers.  In summary, potential workers will be required to obtain immigration permission under a revised points based system, with the key features as follows:

  • The resident labour market test, which is one of the main compliance hurdles for employers, will be scrapped. The 20,700 annual cap on visas for entry clearance applications will also be removed. This is likely to reduce the administrative burden and risks faced by employers and speed-up the process for obtaining work visas.
  • There will be a skilled route to include workers with intermediate skills levels as well and graduate and post-graduate roles. Interestingly, the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation of retaining the minimum salary threshold at £30,000 will be the subject of further consultation and the shortage occupation list (SOL) will be reviewed. It seems likely that various exceptions will be made, including possibly retaining a lower ‘new entrant’ rate for recent graduates and younger workers, using the SOL to fill key roles which typically attract a lower salary, and to account for variations across the different nations of the UK.
  • Employers who have typically used EU nationals to fill lower skilled and lower paid roles will be concerned about the lack of a route specifically for low skilled workers and the decision not to operate sectoral labour schemes. While there is provision, as a transitional measure until 2025, to institute a time-limited route for temporary short-term workers for a maximum of 12 months, it seems likely that this will be limited to certain sectors such as construction and social care. Furthermore, the route will be open only to nationals of specified countries, will not carry entitlement to access public funds or to bring dependants, and will not lead to permanent settlement. As such, it is likely to be of limited attraction to many lower skilled workers.
  • Of more significant concern is the apparent aim to adapt the current sponsor licence / points based system to cover EU nationals. Tier 2 would effectively become the main immigration route which employers would be required to use to recruit EU (as well as non-EU) nationals. The sponsor licence system is recognised as a significant administrative burden for many employers, particularly those with limited HR functions.
  • While some current compliance hurdles may be removed, it appears that a financial ‘stick’ may be used to indirectly reduce reliance by employers on workers who require visas. The White Paper refers to the immigration system being self-funding and that increasing the amount of the Immigration Skills Charge (currently set at £1,000 per annum per worker), may regulate the number of immigration applications.
  • There will be provision for EU nationals to visit the UK to undertake limited activities (eg, attend meetings and conferences, discuss matters relating to their overseas employment, and holiday) without having to obtain a visa in advance. EU nationals will welcome the proposal to continue to use e-gates to facilitate swift entry.

The White Paper will be the subject of consultation throughout 2019. 

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