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Immigration policy after Brexit: The proposals of the Migration Advisory Committee

  • United Kingdom
  • Employment law

19-09-2018

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has published proposals for a future immigration system for the UK after Brexit. In our ebrief from 30th June 2017, we looked at the position of EU citzens in the UK now, those arriving before the Brexit date and those arriving before the end of December 2020. This report was commissioned by the Government in 2017 and looks at how it will be possible for EU nationals to work in the UK in the absence of free movement. The report was prepared following consultation with over 400 participants and contains a great deal of evidence-based assessment of the contribution of EU workers to the UK.

The report makes a series of recommendations likely to have long-lasting impact on employment-based immigration. Some of these relate to principles the new system should incorporate: it should generally be easier for highly skilled workers to emigrate, for example, and there should be more consultation and monitoring. More specific changes are also suggested, several of which would reverse policies which have been part of immigration law in the UK for many years.

On the thorny issue of preferential treatment of EU workers over those from elsewhere in future, the MAC comments that such treatment would not be beneficial in isolation from all other considerations, but does not rule this out as part of the bigger picture; if this were obtained in agreement for wider trade access, for example, or some elements of reciprocal free movement.

The proposals

The specific proposals made in the report building on these themes are:

  • The monthly cap of the number of restricted Tier 2 General Certicates may end, as could the requirement for employers to conduct a resident labour market test before employing newly-hired staff, to be replaced by greater emphasis on salary thresholds and fees;
  • The Tier 2 General immigration category should be re-opened to all jobs requiring skill levels at RQF Level 3, currently being reserved to those which would usually require qualification at RQF Level 6 and above;
  • There should not be a Sector Based Scheme to allow lower skilled migrants to take up specific jobs and any such scheme for agricultural workers should only be introduced if assurances regarding payment of the minimum wage could be provided.
  • The Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme could be extended if a need is identified for more temporary workers in relatively low-skilled roles.

Commentary

The proposed reforms of the Tier 2 system appear fundamental but, in our view, would generally be welcomed by employers who currently act as sponsors . The abolition of the Tier 2 General immigration cap and a reduction in the skill level required to RQF Level 3 would help such employers. Replacement of the resident labour market test with higher salary thresholds and application fees (such as the Immigration Skills Charge) may well make recruitment more expensive, however, and cause concern for those sponsoring workers.

This report does not offer clear solutions as to how lower skilled workers from overseas may service the economy from 2021 onward which is a real concern for UK Plc. As an example, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service advised the MAC that, if a restrictive immigration policy were introduced, major employers may relocate their activity south of the land border to maintain their competitive advantage. The report notes that the reasons for reliance on EU migrant workers are often more fundamental than can be resolved with immigration policies alone, but a solution will need to address the needs of these sectors as they are now, not as they should be in future.

Expanding the current Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme to meet such shortages of labour would require revision of how that immigration category operates now. It is a small immigration category with relatively poor take-up (48,000 visas were available for young people from Australia and New Zealand in 2017, but only 14,000 chose to come). The recent Migration Observatory report on which we have previously commented notes that around 60% of lower-skilled EU workers in the UK are above the age of 30, so would not meet the current age requirements of such a scheme. The National Conversation on Immigration report of earlier this week advised that short-term visas were felt by its respondents to have a poor impact on community cohesion because they are not monitored well and, due to the short term nature of such categories, prevent migrant workers from putting down local roots, learning English and generally integrating.

Simplification of immigration law has been a longstanding intention of successive Governments, but these proposals may well make it more complicated. Currently we have free movement. When (if?) free movement ends there would be at least four different immigration statuses for EU workers - settled, pre-settled status (those here already or arriving before the end of the proposed implementation period), limited leave to remain (Youth Mobility) and permission to work for a specific employer (Tier 2). These new processes would introduce an extra 2 million workers to immigration regulation with all of the administration, costs and infrastructure demands that additional volume entails.

A two-tier sponsor licencing system is suggested to allow smaller companies to participate in the sponsorship more easily. A large number of occupations would be eligible for sponsorship for the first time. Some of the changes to Tier 2 would be welcomed, but this does add a degree of complexity, employer responsibility and cost to the process.

Next steps

Although a body which is independent, our experience is that reports of the MAC tend to be implemented, at least in part, by governments. The suggestion that there need be no preference offered to allow EU migration appears in line with Government thinking regarding that subject and is likely to be welcomed.

Whether there would be acceptance of lowering the skill threshold for Tier 2 sponsorship is another matter. This has been progressively increased by UK Visas and Immigration since first introduced in 2008 and reduced to a lower level, together with abolition of the resident labour market test, seems a radical step. Wider political considerations, such as the progress of Brexit and subsequent trade negotiations, are also likely to inform the Government’s consideration.

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