The race to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore the next prime minister, has led to recent policy announcements on how immigration would be handled in the future.

The current government had already released an Immigration white paper setting out reforms to the UK's immigration system to be implemented from January 2021 onwards. Under these proposals, the new system would be designed around a policy aimed at bringing the people with the skills business needs to the UK rather than reducing numbers. The white paper proposes to bring EU citizens into the current immigration system which applies to non-EU migrants. The government has already indicated that it plans to reduce the skills threshold required to qualify for a sponsored work visa and would scrap the migration quota.

Both Conservative Party leadership contenders have signalled that they would also continue with this trend towards liberalisation. Jeremy Hunt has re-affirmed the move to scrap the target of reducing net migration to below 100,000, a policy which was introduced in 2010. As health secretary, he championed moves to relax visa requirements for foreign doctors and wanted to make it easier for Chinese tourists to come to the UK.

Boris Johnson has gone further and pledged to investigate the merits of an "Australian style points based system". In this system, migrants can earn points based on their skills and characteristics. If they meet a certain points threshold, a visa is granted which allows them to live and work in the UK without restriction. Their close family members would also be able to join them. For example, a high level of education, the ability to speak English and proven earning potential would score highly.

Long-time UK immigration observers would recognise that such a visa existed recently in the form of Tier 1 (General). This visa category, introduced in 2008, replaced the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme and was very popular but the government found that some 30% of visa holders were, perfectly legally, taking employment in low skilled roles or where economically inactive. Restrictions were steadily introduced and tightened until the visa category was scrapped altogether for new applicants from 2011.

The re-introduction of a similar visa category would be good news for employers who will have a new option available to hire skilled workers without resorting to costly sponsorship. It would also be excellent news for workers who would have a flexible visa without having to demonstrate high net wealth nor a business plan nor exceptional talent. It would potentially fill the gap left by the white paper on how self-employed workers could obtain a visa to work in the UK.

It will be interesting to see if these ideas are developed and how they will overcome the perceived problems encountered with the previous incarnation of a points-based category. Tier 1 (General) applications became increasingly complex by the time the route closed and there may be moves to have a low bar for initial entry to UK but a high bar for settlement. For example, applicants may need to evidence their skills to come to the UK but will need to demonstrate successful use of those skills in order to remain in the UK. This would follow in the footsteps of the new Start-Up and Innovator categories introduced in April 2019.

Boris Johnson has pledged to instruct the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to examine the merits of a points based system if he wins the leadership contest. The MAC may therefore have a very busy few months ahead following its recent commission in relation to the minimum salary thresholds and regional salary variations for work visas.