How will the UK points-based immigration system work?

The government has revealed more details of a new immigration system which will come into force in January 2021, ending the freedom of movement rule with the European Union (EU) – which allows EU citizens to work in the UK (and UK citizens to do the same in the EU).

Under the new scheme, EU migrants will be treated the same as those from the rest of the world.

The changes will take effect after the transition period between the UK and the EU (during which almost all the rules stay the same) ends in December 2020.

Taking control of immigration was one of the key themes of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.

Long term net migration to the UK

What are the plans?

The government wants a “points-based system” which takes different factors like skills and language into account when awarding visas which would allow people to work in the UK.

In a policy statement being published on Wednesday 19 February, the government said that to get a visa, applicants from anywhere in the world must:

  • Have a job offer from an “approved employer” at an “appropriate skill level”
  • Speak English

That will get an applicant to 50 points. But they must have 70 points to be eligible for a visa. The most straightforward route to the final 20 points is that the applicant will:

  • Earn at least £25,600 (reduced from the £30,000 which currently applies to non-EU applicants)

They can also gain extra points for having better qualifications (10 points for a relevant PhD; or 20 points for a PhD in science, technology, engineering or maths) or an offer of a job in which the UK has a shortage (20 points), even if they don’t earn as much money.

The government has now said that people coming to do certain jobs in health or education can still get 20 points if their salary is less than £25,600 – so long as they are paid a minimum of £20,480 and in line with national pay scales.

Health and care visa

The Home Office has given details of a fast-track entry system for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Most care workers will not be covered by the scheme though.

Those eligible for this visa will pay reduced fees and will be supported through the application process, with decisions expected to be given within 3 weeks.

Successful applicants will be exempt from the immigration health surcharge. The charge (which currently only applies to non-EU workers) is £400 per person per year and is due to rise to £624 in October.

Applicants via this route will still have to meet the relevant skill level and salary thresholds.

What about people coming here to study?

There will be no limit on the number of international students who can come to the UK to study.

A new graduate visa will be launched in summer 2021 and will allow students who have completed a degree to stay in the UK for 2 years, rising to 3 for those who have done a PhD.

One of the biggest arguments for leaving the EU is that it would allow the UK to sets its own immigration policy.

The government’s aim is a system that provides flexibility for employers – so the minimum salary threshold starts at just over £20,000 and there’s no need to prove that a job couldn’t have been offered to someone already living in the country.

But there are restrictions too: the vast majority of vacant positions in the social care sector will not be filled from immigration as these workers are not classed as skilled – and they’re not eligible for the rebranded NHS and care workers fast track visa.

In short, care workers won’t be able to apply for a visa dedicated to care.

Ministers say immigration can’t solve the care sector’s problems which, they argue, are down to poor pay and career prospects – making the job unattractive to British workers who could be capable of filling the roles.

What’s the UK system now?

Currently, those from within the EU do not need a visa to work in the UK because they benefit from freedom of movement – although there are limits on claiming certain benefits.

For those from outside the EU, there is already a system in place which is based on points.

These points are awarded for having English language skills, being sponsored by a company and meeting a salary threshold.

A maximum number of work visas are awarded – the cap is set at around 21,000 a year but it isn’t often met. Under the new system this cap will be removed.

There are four “tiers” of visa assessed on points, covering:

  • Temporary workers, this might include those coming to do seasonal work on farms or in a theatre production
  • Students
  • Skilled workers
  • “High-value” migrants for example people with “exceptional talent” or major investors

The government does not intend to introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route but has been running a pilot scheme for seasonal agricultural workers. When this pilot finishes at the end of the year, the government will decide whether it will continue under the points-based system.

Why do people keep talking about Australia?

Australia is the country often given as an example by politicians, although Canada and New Zealand also have points-based systems.

They have a lot of similarities to the system the UK uses for non-EU migrants, although each system awards different numbers of points for different things.

In these kinds of systems, “there is only one way you can get in and that’s if you meet all of those criteria,” according to Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at University of Oxford.

“What the UK points system doesn’t do is assess the individuals for things like their age and qualifications. The UK system trusts the employer to decide whether the person is qualified to do the job.”

In Australia, being aged between 25 and 33 years old will get you 30 points – almost halfway to the eligibility threshold of 65 points.

The UK also does not have the same sort of decentralised system as Australia, in which different states may try to attract migrants with particular skills.

Scotland is keen to introduce this sort of devolution and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon unveiled proposals for a Scottish visa to address skills gaps and “long-term demographic change” on 27 January 2020, which were rejected in Westminster.

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