The UK government has provided further details of the immigration system that it intends to implement when the post-Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020 which will apply equally to EEA and non-EEA nationals.

Although it was previously stated that a brand new points based system will be introduced, the proposals indicate that the new scheme will be very similar to the current one.

The big news is that a low skilled work category will not be introduced, even on a transitional basis. The reason for this is that the government wants to transform the UK into a high-skilled, high-wage, high-productivity economy and its view, endorsed by the Migration Advisory Committee, is that this can only be achieved by restricting employer access to low-skilled migrant international labour.

Businesses who rely on low-skilled labour are understandably very concerned by this. They are of the view that the government is underestimating the impact that the end of EU Free Movement will have on their ability to operate in the UK and overestimating the ability of automation to compensate for a reduced low-skilled labour pool.

A number of other things which are not changing include:

  • the government has expressly stated that it will not be creating a dedicated self-employed route. Although it recognises that there are a large number of sectors that rely on contractors, its view is that individuals who want to work in the UK on this basis are catered for under the Innovator category and recently announced Global Talent route. There is mention that an unsponsored route will be introduced but this will be capped and reserved for the most highly skilled. There is also no plan to introduce it on 1 January 2021;
  • there are no plans to make any changes to the visitor route; and
  • less controversially, EEA nationals will continue to be able to enter the UK using the eGates.

Where there will be significant changes, these will be for skilled workers sponsored by employers.

  • The skills threshold will be lowered from RGF6 (equivalent to a Bachelors degree) to RQF3 (school leaver level), although not all RQF3 occupations will be eligible for sponsorship.
  • There will be a corresponding drop in the minimum salary level for that category, from £30,000 to £25,600, although workers will still need to be paid the specific salary threshold for their occupation, if that is higher.
  • Employers will no longer have to demonstrate that they have advertised the role to local workers.
  • The cap which currently applies to the category will be abolished.
  • Employers will still have to pay the £1000 per year Immigration Skills Charge (ISC) and will still be required to obtain a licence to sponsor workers, although there is mention of streamlining the current licensing system. It will be interesting to see how many employers will be willing to pay the ISC to fill positions which attract a salary of less than £30,000, especially when the £400 a year Immigration Health Surcharge will continue to apply.

In relation to the points based elements of the new scheme, there will be some ability to trade points under the sponsored worker route, but this will have limited impact as having a job offer at the required skill level and being able to speak English will be mandatory requirements. The only time when points will become relevant is if the salary for the position drops below the required minimum. In this scenario, applicants will be able to earn extra points if, for example, they hold a PhD or the job is on a list of occupations where it is recognised that the required skills are in short supply.

In my view, one of the most interesting items buried in this announcement is that most EEA nationals applying for immigration permission under this new system will, as they do now under the EU Settlement Scheme, be able to apply for their visas using a mobile app and will, in most cases, not be required to enrol their biometrics at a visa application centre. They will also not be issued with a Biometric Residence Permit (BRP). Instead, as with the EU Settlement Scheme, their immigration status will be linked to their passport and they will be given access to an online portal which will give them the ability to prove their immigration status to third parties, such as employers. This is in line with the government’s long-term plan to phase out BRPs entirely.

With no provision for low-skilled workers, limited changes to the sponsored worker category, few new options for the self-employed and no reduction in the fees associated with immigration applications, it is perhaps understandable that many are concerned that the new immigration system will not assist businesses in dealing with the new reality of the end of EU free movement.