White Paper on UK’s future immigration system - five things employers need to know

09 Jan 2019

The Government’s long awaited, and much anticipated, White Paper on the future of the UK’s immigration system was published on 19th December 2018. In her foreword to the document, the Prime Minister states that it “answers the call of the British people, and begins the process of delivering an immigration system truly underpinned by public support”. That’s a bold claim, when you consider just how divisive an issue the UK’s approach to immigration policy is.

Here are five things UK employers need to know about the document:

1. The White Paper does not actually confirm what the future changes to the immigration system will be. Instead, the Government has set out its ideas in principle (which in most cases simply follow the recommendations of the earlier report of the Migration Advisory Committee (“MAC”)), and notes that it will embark on “a year of extensive engagement” (which we can take to mean consultation), before announcing changes to the rules.

2. The intention is for free movement to come to a meaningful and definite end as we know it, as “Everyone will be required to obtain a permission if they want to come to the UK and to work or study here.”

3. The Paper repeatedly states that the new system will be “skills based”, but in many respects this really equates to “salary based” in the proposals put forward. For example, the Government anticipates maintaining the current minimum salary threshold of £30,000 that applies to non-EEA nationals who come to work in the UK under the current Tier 2 (General) sponsored visa system. This is a concern, as there are many sectors in which there is a very significant skills shortage (e.g. manufacturing, nursing, and teaching) in respect of roles for which the typical salary falls below that threshold. In the short term this risks an artificial salary inflation (for sectors where employers are able to control salaries in this ad hoc way) or a continuing/worsening skills gap.

4. There is a proposal to remove the requirement for UK employers to look for candidates from within the UK (through a prescriptive advertising process called the “Resident Labour Market Test”) before seeking to employ a migrant in a role. This will no doubt be generally welcomed by businesses/employers. However, the Paper intimates that the Immigration Skills Charge (currently payable by employers up front, typically at the rate of £3,000 - £5,000 for each sponsored migrant) will be significantly increased and applied more widely, as the document points to the MAC’s suggestion that the skills charge is a better way to protect the domestic labour market against a downward pressure on wages.

5. A temporary and transitional arrangement is proposed for low-skilled migrants, under which they will be permitted to come to the UK for a maximum of 12 months at a time, following which there will be a 12-month “cooling off” period when they must leave the UK and cannot apply to re-enter on a similar basis. The Paper says migrants will not be able to bring dependants or access public funds under this route, which along with the strict time limited nature of the visa, could be a significant disincentive to prospective migrants.

This new White Paper provides a clear sense of the direction of travel in which the present        Government is intending to take the UK. However, it leaves many serious questions and issues unresolved. There is a yawning gap in the proposals when it comes to addressing the demand of UK employers to fill intermediately skilled/paid roles. This is of particular concern, given that in many sectors demand significantly outstrips supply even before free movement is “turned off”.

There is also the elements of the transitional low-skilled proposals, which will be unattractive to migrants and which mean it may not adequately address the risk that UK employers of low skilled workers will find themselves unable to fill such roles.  The notion that upskilling the domestic workforce, or increasing its engagement in low‑skilled work, does not seem realistic as a quick solution over the short term.

All this emphasises the importance of the “extensive” engagement that the Government says will follow over the next year. The stakes could scarcely be higher.

Watch out for further information about our business immigration and Brexit seminar, and contact Adam Williams for further details on developments in business immigration. 

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