Last week’s general election means the Conservative Party now has a clear majority in government to fulfil the many promises they made in their manifesto, including major overhauls to immigration policy. Not only did Boris Johnson vow to get Brexit done by the New Year, but his party also plans to put EU nationals on the same level as third party nationals once free movement law ends. This in and of itself is a radical approach to immigration law, and will have major consequences for EU citizens in the UK.
After Brexit, once EU nationals are levelled with third party nationals, the conservatives want to introduce what they call a points-based immigration system, which they proclaim to base on the Australian visa system. The plan, broadly, is to introduce three visa categories after Brexit, for which anyone who moves to the UK will have to apply, and which replace existing categories.
The first is the “Exceptional Talent/Contribution” category, and includes the entrepreneur and investor visa. These visas are geared towards “highly educated migrants who have received world-leading awards or otherwise demonstrated exceptional talent, sponsored entrepreneurs setting up a new business or investors.” These people will not require a job offer and will receive fast-track entry to the UK. This category is not dissimilar from the current Tier 1 visa category, albeit with some minor changes.
The second category is for skilled workers, and to some extent, is a rebrand of the current Tier 2 category. The vast majority of these visas would require a job offer, in line with how work visas are allocated to third party nationals now. The skilled workers category is the only way for workers who meet the criteria of the points-based system and have a confirmed job offer to get limited leave to remain. It will effectively require all non-British nationals to prove that they have a job offer as well as reach the amount of points required under the points-based system. Needless to say, implementing this will constitute the most significant change compared to free movement law, which is currently in force, as it requires EU national to comply with visa requirements. This will have a massive impact on fields such as hospitality, where EU nationals make up more than half of the workforce, and the NHS. The Conservative party propose to make up for that potential labour shortage by introducing fast-track entry and reduced fees for certain special types of work, such as a NHS specific visa.
The general idea behind a points-based system is that people are scored on their personal attributes such as language skills, education, age and work experience. If their score hits the minimum required, they can acquire a visa. Crucially, there is no one fixed way to score enough points; a plethora of work experience can make up for older age and excellent language skills might make up for lack of formal education. As long as an individual’s different attributes add up to enough points, they will be granted a visa. The key point about points-based systems is not that they are inherently liberal or progressive; whether it is a liberal system will depend on how points are awarded. Rather, the key feature is their flexibility and the ability to get enough points by making any combination of characteristics. That is how the Australian points-based system works.
Contrastingly, the UK immigration system today is based on mandatory requirements. This is a system where applicants need to tick all the boxes in order to be granted a visa. For example, an applicant will need to prove his language skills, have a certain amount in savings, show that they have a job offer AND show that they will be making a minimum salary. If the individual lacks one of those requirements the visa will be refused, that is how simple it is.
The issues with the Tories’ proposals is that they want the best of both worlds. They want to introduce point-based characteristics, but keep the mandatory requirement of a job offer, combining mandatory requirements with points-based elements. Essentially, they want a points-based system where, after making the points-based selection, they can cherry pick who is granted a visa and who is not. As such, although they like to call it a points-based system, it not really points-based, and it is certainly not as simple or easy to navigate as portrayed by the Party.
The third category is the “sector-specific rules-based” category, which will be made up of specific temporary schemes such as for low-skilled labour, youth mobility or short-term visits. These visas will be time-limited and will not provide a path to settlement. They are how the government will attempt to match the demand for workers in specific sectors with enough visas to supply that demand. Supposedly, these visas will replace the free movement of labour with state planning. Deciding which markets need workers will be outsourced from the Home Office to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). This means that the MAC would react to gaps in the economy, flag them up, and the government will then create a temporary visa category to fill the gap. These will be revised on an ongoing basis based on expert advice from the MAC. In other words, the temporary visas will be reactionary in nature. They will be time-limited and will not provide a path to settlement. If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is. The economy adapts to reality more quickly than the law, and new policy takes months, if not years, to come into force. By the time a new visa category actually opens, the gap in the job market it was trying to fill may well have been resolved by market forces.
As an attentive reader may notice, the only migrants mentioned in the Conservative policy proposals are economic immigrants. The manifesto does not mention changes to other areas of the current immigration regime. It retains the status quo of Theresa May’s controversial hostile environment policies, fails to tackle legal aid cuts, and does not propose any change to the clear human rights violation of indefinite detention, for example. Additionally, the manifesto indicates an attack on judicial review. Since the removal and erosion of appeal rights in the 2014 Immigration Act, judicial review is now often the only recourse to justice for many people who have been wronged by the immigration system. Reforming judicial review, and limiting its scope, removes another layer of checks and balances on Home Office powers, suggesting that not only labour rights, but also human rights, are set to be qualified and watered down after Brexit and once this government starts rolling out policy.