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Brexit Britain to get its points-based immigration system

Immigration, key driver of Brexit, has been hot-button issue in UK for decades, causing dismay among business leaders

Karim El-Bar   | 21.02.2020
Brexit Britain to get its points-based immigration system


The U.K. government is set to introduce a long-debated system to tackle the issue of immigration, one of the country’s most heated political issues. 

A new points-based system was unveiled this week, with the government arguing it has fulfilled a long-held desire on the part of the British electorate to end freedom of movement, especially following the Brexit vote.

Business leaders have responded with dismay, indicating the debate over immigration is far from over.

Home Secretary Priti Patel Wednesday said: “Today is a historic moment for the whole country. We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new U.K. points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down.”

New system

After Dec. 31, freedom of movement between the U.K. and EU will end, and the U.K. will treat the EU and non-EU citizens equally. The new rules do not impact EU migrants currently in the U.K.

The new points-based system will come into effect in January 2021 and has three essential requirements, with the rest being desirable and interchangeable.

The applicant must speak English, have a job offer by an approved sponsor, and the job must be at the appropriate skill level. These three factors together give the migrant 50 of the 70 points needed to be able to come to the U.K.

Remaining points are awarded for qualifications such as a PhDs, high-salary jobs, and working in sectors with labour shortages.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a progressive think tank, said their analysis of government data found that “69% of EU migrants currently working in the U.K. would be ineligible for a skilled work visa.”

The think tank found that 66% of existing EU migrants working in the health and social work would have been ineligible to enter the U.K. under the new system, with the rates of ineligibility including 90% of EU migrants in transport and storage, 85% in hotels and restaurants, and 59% in construction.

There have been some seemingly liberal measures, however: the overall cap on work permits has been lifted, skilled workers now need only A-level qualifications rather than university education, and the salary threshold for skilled work was reduced from £30,000 ($38,795) to £25,600, and drops even further to £20,480 for sectors with a labour shortage.

Ben Greening, executive director of Migration Watch U.K., which campaigns for lowering migration, said: “Ending unskilled immigration would be a real victory for the British public and the British economy. However, these proposals suggest that the government is not serious about taking control of immigration.”

Greening said the combination of lowering of the pay threshold “with no cap on numbers coming via the main route from the outset” was a “massive risk.”

Dismay among business leaders

The government policy statement said: “We will not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route. We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust.”

Employers were quick to fire back.

Head of National Farmers Union Minette Batters said: “As the U.K.’s largest manufacturing sector, British food and farming is at the very core of our economy and any immigration policy must deliver for its needs.

“We have said repeatedly that for farm businesses it is about having the full range of skills needed – from pickers and packers to meat processors and vets – if we are to continue to deliver high quality, affordable food for the public. Failure to provide an entry route for these jobs will severely impact the farming sector.”

British Chambers of Commerce Director General Adam Marshall said: “Critical labour shortages mean firms will still need access to overseas workers at all skill levels… The application process must be radically simplified.”

The social care was particularly vocal, with public and health sector union Unison saying the new system was a “disaster for the care sector.”

The U.K. Homecare Association said: “Cutting off the supply of prospective care workers will pave the way for more people waiting unnecessarily in hospital or going without care. Telling employers to adjust, in a grossly underfunded care system, is simply irresponsible.”

Patel strikes back

“It is about time that businesses started to invest in people in this country. We have over 8 million people, that is 20% of the work force aged between 16 and 64, that are economically inactive right now,” Patel said.

“It’s important that businesses engage with them and invest in people. If they invested in and supported them, more people would be able to work in many of the sectors.”

Of Britain’s economically inactive population, only 1.87 million say they want a job, local media reported. The rest are mostly students, ill, carers, or retired.

When asked about the fact that some of those out of employment have no desire to do some of the jobs currently done by EU migrants, Patel said: “That is an assumption that has been made but it is down to businesses as well to work with the government, to join us in investing in people.”

Andrea Wareham, the director of human resources at popular cafe chain Pret a Manger, said 65% of Pret’s workforce were EU migrants, and only one in 50 applicants to the cafe’s vacancies were British.

Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth said Patel was “clueless.”

In an interview with LBC, a London radio station, Patel was forced to admit that her own parents would not be allowed to enter the U.K. under the new points-based system.

“This isn't about my background or my parents,” she said, before being forced to admit: “Yeah, but also let's not forget we are not changing our approach to refugees and asylum seekers, which is very different to a points-based system for employment and that particular route.”

Patel's maternal family were from Gujurat in India, and moved to Uganda. Her family moved to the U.K. shortly before former leader Idi Amin expelled Uganda’s Asian community in 1972.

She had previously said her family “came to the U.K. with nothing, worked hard and set up a successful shop business.”

Scotland rumbles

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was “impossible to overstate how devastating this policy will be for Scotland’s economy.”

Last month, Sturgeon called for immigration powers to be devolved from the national to the Scottish parliament, to implement a "Scottish visa". Her Scottish National Party is pushing for a fresh referendum on Scottish independence.

The issue of immigration is especially important for Scotland, as it is ageing population is predicted to have more deaths than births for the next 25 years.

Elaine Whyte, the executive secretary of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, said: “I understand the premise that we should be training domestic workers, and that may happen in areas of population density, but what about… where there are no young people to take these jobs?”

She said the government’s plans were “the complete opposite of what we asked for.”

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