A new UK points-based immigration system for work visas is to apply from 1 January 2021.
In a policy paper published on 18 February 2020, the Government confirms that the new system will apply to both EU and non-EU citizens in the same way.
The changes outlined in the paper centre on economic and work immigration only, and do not impact existing routes for families or asylum seekers. Further changes in these areas may transpire as the Government seeks to “transform the way in which all migrants come to the UK to work, study, visit or join their family”.
A new UK points-based system
The Government’s overriding vision is “to reduce overall levels of migration and give top priority to those with the highest skills and the greatest talents”.
The changes will affect anyone coming to the UK from 2021 to work.
EU free movement will end on 31 December 2020. Nationals of EEA countries looking to come to the UK to work from 1st January 2021 must attain the required points and apply for a visa under the new immigration system. EU citizens currently in the UK are required to register under the EU settlement scheme to secure their immigration status.
For UK employers, the impact of the reforms cannot be underestimated. The new system has been designed to move the UK economy away from a “reliance on cheap labour from Europe”, and will drive fundamental shifts in how workforce needs are met across sectors and skill levels.
While some measures are to be introduced to ease the transition for scientists, graduates, NHS workers and those in the agricultural sector, the Government has stated these will be short term. The message to employers is that they have no choice but to “adjust” to the new world.
With changes to the definition and scope of skilled workers and removal of any lower-skilled work visa, there is a lot for employers to absorb and respond to, and a fast-approaching deadline of 1 January 2021 to be ready by.
We summarise the changes employers need to be aware of.
UK work visas
The new points-based system will offer immigration routes for highly skilled workers, skilled workers, students and other specialists such as global leaders and innovators.
Employers wanting to hire non-UK national workers after 1 January 2021 will need to hold a sponsorship licence. With new routes expected to open as early as this autumn to allow workers to come to the UK under the new regime, it makes sense for UK employers to apply as soon as possible for their licence to avoid disruption to operations and their recruitment pipeline.
Visitors will in most cases be able to come to the UK for up to six months without a visa, but will not have the right to work. Those who come to the UK as a visitor will need to leave the country before making an application for another route.
Non-UK nationals will have to attain 70 points to qualify for a UK work visa.
There are three mandatory requirements: having an offer of a job with a sponsored employer; having a job at the appropriate skill level; speaking English to the required level. These total 50 points, and applicants must then make up their points to the 70 points threshold from the remaining characteristics, which include salary level, shortage occupation and education qualification.
|Offer of job by approved sponsor||No||20|
|Job at appropriate skill level||No||20|
|Speaks English at required level||No||10|
|Salary of £20,480 (minimum) – £23,039||Yes||0|
|Salary of £23,040 – £25,599||Yes||10|
|Salary of £25,600 or above||Yes||20|
|Job in a shortage occupation (as designated by the MAC)||Yes||20|
|Education qualification: PhD in subject relevant to the job||Yes||10|
|Education qualification: PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job||Yes||20|
The policy paper also indicated that points allocations will remain subject to review and may be “refined” to improve flexibility, such as including new characteristics or amending tradeable attributes.
Under the plans, the definition of skilled workers is being expanded and the skill level reduced from level 6 (degree) to level 3 (A-level), ie those educated to A-level/Scottish Highers-equivalent standard and not just graduate level, as is currently the case.
In a welcome move, there will no longer be a cap on the number of skilled worker visas that can be issued to qualifying individuals.
The minimum salary threshold for skilled workers is to be lowered from £30,000 per annum to £25,600, and in some cases £20,480 for shortage occupations, which currently include nurses, civil engineers and individuals with a PhD relevant to a specific job.
The Migration Advisory Committee is being commissioned by the Government to devise the shortage occupation list for the new skilled worker route.
Low skilled workers
There will be no work visas for general low-skilled or temporary workers under the new points-based immigration system. This means roles that do not require A-level qualifications or higher will not qualify under the new rules.
This will be hugely problematic for UK employers that rely heavily on ‘low-skilled’ and/or low paid workers such as farms, restaurants, hotels and care homes.
While sectors such as health & social care, agriculture, construction, retail and leisure have been vocal in their concerns about cutting off the supply of low skilled migrant labour, the Government has stated its position with the new rules is to shift the economy away from a dependence on unskilled European workers, in favour of the domestic labour market and innovation, automation and technological solutions.
This will be a painful transition, particularly for employers reliant on human resources to perform critical work deemed unskilled under the new system.
The Government has said the EU settlement scheme has provided employers with some reprieve in allowing EU citizens who have applied to stay in the UK to help meet short-term labour demands.
In addition, it has also referred to additional sector-focused schemes to alleviate labour shortages, for example seasonal agricultural workers and youth mobility programmes (currently under Tier 5) allowing 20,000 young people to come to the UK each year.
Affected employers will, however, need to take action now to reassess and remodel their recruitment strategies and workforce planning to take them into 2021 and beyond.
The paper confirms that international students will also have to apply under the points-based system. Points will be awarded where the applicant has an offer from an approved educational institution, speaks English and is able to support themselves during their studies in the UK.
Freelancers & self-employed
There will be no route for freelancers or those who are self-employed. Such individuals who are without an employer or sponsorship will need to consider non-points-based routes such as the innovator visa, any new unsponsored routes and existing routes such as the Permitted Paid Engagement visa.
So how much is going to change with the new points-based immigration system?
The Government has worked hard to distance the new rules from the existing points-based system for work visas; the policy paper avoids referring to ‘tiers’ as per the current system and the routes themselves also differ, with the skills level being lowered.
The biggest shock to the system – both economically, culturally and socially – will be the end of EU free movement coupled with no general UK work visa for lower skilled roles.
We expect the Government may get creative in providing sector or role-specific concessions, and may well use such schemes as leverage in trade negotiations.
The functional aspects of the new system, from the detail so far released, appear not to be too dissimilar to how the current UK points-based system for work visas operates. In any event, the reform certainly does not go as far as the Australian-style system which affords considerably more flexibility for work visa applicants in attaining the required points.
Practical detail still eludes, however, in many areas, with the policy paper stating further detail on the points-based system is to be released in due course.
Frustratingly, this leaves very little time for employers to digest the new rules and to take action in readiness for the new system going live on 1st January 2021.