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Fri 3 April 2020
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Joe Lyons considers whether the Government’s new points-based immigration system will actually reduce immigration into the UK and what the cost of it will be to key sectors.

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The Home Office has announced plans to introduce a points-based immigration system by 2021, to end free movement of people from the EU, bring down overall the numbers of migrants entering the country and “take back control of our borders”. But can this actually be achieved and at what cost to the UK?

Net migration in the UK – the difference between the number of immigrants entering the country and the number of emigrants leaving – increased under New Labour, from 48,000 in 1997 to 256,000 by 2010. The Conservatives promised to halt the increase, but failed to achieve this, with net migration peaking at 342,000 in 2015, with a slow decline since.

The Government is aiming to introduce a points-based immigration system modelled on the one used by Australia. However, the impetus for Australia’s immigration model was to increase skilled migration, not to bring numbers down per se, with Australia having relatively high levels of migration by international standards. In 2018, 29% of the population of Australia were born abroad, compared to an estimated 14% in the UK.

For the UK Government, increasing skilled migration is also a priority, but this is likely to cause problems of shortages in some sectors and clash with its aim to reduce migration overall.

The independent research organisation Migrant Watch UK believes that its plans to scrap the current UK cap of 20,700 visas allocated for skilled migrants will lead to an increase in immigration.

“These proposals suggest that the Government is not serious about taking control of immigration,” it has said. “Not only will millions of UK workers see their jobs opened up to new or greater competition from overseas workers from much poorer countries but employers will no longer have to look to find anyone at home before searching abroad.

“With no cap on numbers coming via the main route from the outset, this is a massive risk that will alarm the 30 million people who want the Government to reduce immigration and show belief in young Brits, rather than giving in to the demands of bosses.”

The new system will require potential migrants to score 70 points in order to qualify for a visa. Points are awarded for a job offer by a Government-approved sponsor, if the job is at the appropriate skill level and if the applicant has a good level of English. The idea behind the new system is that both EU and non-EU migrants will be assessed under the same rules, thus ending more relaxed restrictions for EU nationals. 

One of the changes introduced by the new system will be the reduction of the salary threshold from £30,000 to £25,600. If migrants earn less than £25,600, it is still possible for them to earn the necessary points to gain entry to the UK, if they meet other characteristics. These include earning no less than £20,480, having a job in a shortage occupation area, and if they have a PhD relevant to employment. Migrants will no longer have to be qualified to graduate level, with the standard lowered to ‘A’ Level equivalent.

However, there are growing concerns that, even with the wage threshold and skill level being lowered, certain sectors will be significantly affected such as social care, agriculture and hospitality.

“There is a crisis brewing in social care,” Christina McAnea of Unison, one of the UK’s largest trade unions, said. “This is a fact that few would deny. It is highly skilled work, but low-paid. As a result, it falls foul of the Government’s arbitrary immigration salary threshold announced this week.”

In England, 17% of the workforce in adult social care is non-British and, in London, this figure is 39%. The adult social care sector employs 1.62 million people – 115,000 (8%) of whom are currently from the EU. 88,000 of those EU nationals do direct care jobs, which under the new points-based immigration system would be considered to be ‘unskilled’.

“Nursed a patient today that was so depressed they’d lost the ability to wash or feed themselves,” said a psychiatric nurse. “Spent over an hour bathing them and talking through their emotions. I may not have a degree, but being a care assistant is not unskilled.”

In its announcement of the new system, the Government said it “will not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route” because “we need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe”. An NHS fast-track visa scheme is, however, being promised for foreign doctors and nurses to work in the National Health Service, with the NHS route having no cap on numbers.

The Office for National Statistics has said that, in agriculture, 20% of workers come from abroad, with the British Grower’s Association estimating in 2016 that 75,000 seasonal workers were not from the UK. The National Farmers’ Union Seasonal Supply of Labour survey estimates that 99% of seasonal labour is provided by EU workers.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced separately plans for a Seasonal Workers’ Pilot, aimed at quadrupling the number of workers farms can recruit on a temporary basis from outside the EU this year to take up seasonal work. The move is aimed at fruit farmers who will be hurt significantly by the lack of low-skilled migrants able to obtain visas under the Government’s new immigration system.

The hospitality sector is also heavily reliant on EU nationals. A report for the British Hospitality Association found that 12.3% of employees in the UK’s hospitality sector come from the EU. The UK hospitality sector employs a much higher proportion of EU nationals when compared to the UK workforce as a whole, where 6.9% of the workforce consisted of EU nationals in 2017.


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