In an early episode of the classic sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, Alan's long-suffering assistant, Lynn, is trying to persuade Alan to downsize his car in order to avoid job losses at his production company:
Alan: “I’m not driving a Mini Metro.”
Lynn: “No, it’s different. It’s called a Rover Metro now.”
Alan: “They’ve rebadged it, you fool!”
What is the relevance of this little slice of BBC 90s sitcom nostalgia? Because Alan Partridge's rather crude retort to his assistant has come to mind every time details of the government's plans for its "points-based" immigration system have been leaked to the press. And now that the government's proposals have been published in a policy statement it seems quite obvious that this will primarily be a rebadging exercise.
The government describes their plans as "a new system that will transform the way in which all migrants come to the UK to work, study, visit or join their family". But to anyone familiar with the existing immigration system, it is really quite surprising how little is expected to actually change.
Few Changes, but a Big Difference
The fact that there are likely to be few substantive changes to the existing immigration system is in fact incredibly significant when you consider that the system will now have to accommodate workers from EEA countries.
Up until the end of 2020, EEA nationals will still be able to come to the UK under the Brexit transitional arrangements without having to obtain prior authorisation. From 1 January 2021 onwards though - other than Irish citizens - all EEA nationals arriving in the UK for the first time will need some form of immigration permission if they want to work or remain here longer than six months.
The population of people who will not require a visa to live or work in the UK will therefore shrink from approximately 515 million to approximately 72 million. This is potentially a lot of extra people needing to be accommodated by the "new" system.
The proposals in the policy statement accept many of the recommendations made by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). So, what is changing?
Tier 2 (to be rebadged as a "skilled worker" category) will continue to be the main route for skilled workers wanting to come to the UK. The extent to which that "new" category will operate in the same way as the existing Tier 2 arrangements - which requires sponsorship by a licensed employer sponsor - is confirmed by the following recommendation in the policy statement:
"Employers not currently approved by the Home Office to be a sponsor should consider doing so now if they think they will want to sponsor skilled migrants, including from the EU, from early 2021."
Changes from the existing Tier 2 arrangements will include the following:
- removing the current cap on the number of new Tier 2 migrants per year
- reducing the skills threshold from RQF6 (graduate level) to RQF3 (A Levels)
- a minimum salary level of £25,600 for most roles, with lower salaries potentially available for shortage jobs or where the migrant holds a relevant PhD or a relevant PhD in a STEM subject
Lower-Paid Workers and Shortages
The policy statement rules out introducing an unsponsored short-term worker category, as was proposed by Theresa May in December 2018. This is where the impact of immigration restrictions on EEA nationals is likely to have a big impact. However, it seems that there may be scope for specific sectors to be granted special dispensation if they are able to demonstrate shortages.
Seasonal, NHS and Temporary Workers
On the day the policy statement was published, the government also announced the expansion of a pilot scheme for seasonal workers in agriculture. Other special arrangements are likely to be introduced for NHS workers, and the existing Tier 5 categories for various temporary workers such as volunteers, religious workers and sportspeople are set to continue.
Coming to the UK Without Sponsorship
The options for people coming to the UK without sponsorship are likely to be rather limited. The recently launched Global Talent visa (a rebadged version of the former Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) category) will be one option. However, applicants in that category still need an endorsement following assessment of their track record of success in their particular field. The existing Innovator and Start Up categories seem set to continue, but these also require endorsement following assessment of the applicant's business plans.
In line with the MAC's recommendations, the government does plan to create an unsponsored category to sit alongside the sponsored worker route. This category is likely to be subject to a cap. Examples of characteristics which might be used to assess eligibility for such a category include qualifications, age and relevant work experience. But the government seem keen to avoid the challenges presented by the Tier 1 (General) category, which closed in 2011 following concerns that it was not being used for high-skilled work in the UK.
Immigration categories for international students will also come within the "new" system. Nothing in the policy statement suggests any divergence from the existing Tier 4 sponsorship arrangements.
The government will publish more detail about the proposed "new" system in the coming months. Their intention is for "key routes" to be opened in the Autumn "so that migrants can start to apply ahead the system taking effect in January 2021".
Tom Brett Young is a Partner at award-winning law firm VWV, with offices in London, Watford, Bristol and Birmingham.