At the recent Conservative Party conference, the UK Government has indicated in which direction they are planning to take the future of UK immigration.
Recently, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended a single system with no preferential treatment for European workers, expanded routes for medium and highly skilled workers and limited visa options for low skilled workers with narrow sector based exceptions such as agriculture.
The Government's response to the report has been broadly positive and the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has provided some more detail on what they are considering:
- The Government remains committed to reducing levels of net migration and the previous policy has been focused on getting to numbers under 100,000. This overall strategy remains in place though perhaps without the numerical target. Lower skilled migration is to be curbed but the Home Secretary has hinted that special arrangements are being considered not just for agriculture, but also for the hospitality and construction sectors where severe labour shortages have been predicted by industry groups.
- The Home Secretary also hinted that the current cap of 20,700 Tier 2 (General) visas per year could be scrapped and the minimum salary threshold of £30,000 reconsidered. The evidence is mounting that skilled migration could be liberalised while lower-skilled migration is to be targeted for reduction.
- The standard of English which migrants are expected to have will be increased. Currently, those adults coming to the UK to join settled family need only a very basic level of English (Level A1 under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) while most other categories require an intermediate level (B1). Raising this threshold will naturally reduce the number of people who qualify for the visa without some language coaching.
- The much maligned "Life in the UK Test", which he derided as a "pub quiz" that failed to provide evidence of integration, will be overhauled. This is an interesting development as it will be the second time the test has been revised. The first iteration was mocked for having questions around what time pubs close or how to claim benefits. The second version has a focus on history, geography and state institutions such as the monarchy. The third edition looks to be based around "values" rather than knowledge - perhaps attendance on a course could be required?
Overall, the direction of travel is to roll back many of the changes introduced when the Prime Minister, Theresa May, was Home Secretary. Minimum salary requirements and visa caps are to be reviewed, the system will be focused on skills rather than numbers, and students are to be encouraged. Business groups have reacted with alarm at the prospect of lower skilled labour being reduced at a time of historically low unemployment but the Government has indicated its willingness to consider a sector-by-sector approach.
What is interesting to me is that the Home Secretary did not mention the possibility of returning to a true points based system where migrants are given points based on level of education, language skills and earning potential. If you meet a certain threshold, you are given permission to work in the UK without restriction. Such a system existed in the UK between 2008-2010 in the form of Tier 1 (General) but it was too popular and the Government felt that many of these highly skilled migrants ended up in low skilled work, so the visa route was closed. There was brief consideration of introducing such a system for European citizens, but there is always a possibility of returning to this as part of a trade deal between with UK and the EU.
The official Government response to the MAC is due before the end of the year, so more details are to follow.