LONDON — The U.K. government will not create a visa route for low-skilled migrants and temporary workers in its post-Brexit immigration system, which will give “top priority” to those with the highest skills, including scientists, engineers and academics.
A policy paper published Tuesday evening outlines plans for a new points-based system after EU freedom of movement ends in December. The report said employers “will need to adjust” to not being able to recruit unskilled workers from Europe.
“We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust,” the paper said.
“It is important that employers move away from a reliance on the U.K.’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity and wider investment in technology and automation.”
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the employers’ group CBI, said firms in the care, construction, hospitality, food and drink sectors could be most affected.
“In some sectors firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses,” she said. “Firms know that hiring from overseas and investing in the skills of their workforce and new technologies is not an ‘either or’ choice — both are needed to drive the economy forward.”
The report recognizes the proposals represent “a significant change” for employers in the U.K., but pointed to a group of about 170,000 recently arrived non-EU citizens working in low-skilled occupations, saying this kind of workforce will continue to be available.
It added that U.K. employers could also recruit low-skilled workers from among those Europeans already in the country, and restated the government’s commitment to quadruple the pilot scheme for seasonal workers in agricultural jobs to 10,000 places.
According to the paper, skilled migrants from the EU and elsewhere wishing to work in Britain will need to demonstrate that they have a job offer from an approved sponsor; that the job offer is at the required skill level (A level minimum), and that they speak English. They will be able to make an application for a visa if, in addition to this, they meet the minimum salary threshold — which the government plans to lower from £30,000 to £25,600.
However, the salary threshold will not be a hard stop. As long as applicants earn £20,480 or more, they may still be able to live in the U.K. if they can demonstrate that they have a job offer in an occupation judged to be most needed, or if they have a Ph.D. relevant to the job.
The Migration Advisory Committee, an independent body reporting to the Home Office, will produce a shortage occupation list detailing all jobs covered by the points-based system. This will make it easier for the government to address shortages in the NHS, for instance.
Meanwhile, the most highly skilled will be able to enter the U.K. without a job offer if they are endorsed by a relevant body and they can achieve the required level of points.
The Home Office also floated plans for an even broader route — with no endorsement from an organization at all — that would allow a small number of the most highly-skilled workers to move to the U.K. without a job offer, but the department warned this additional route is likely to be capped and “will take longer to implement.”
The points-based system will be introduced next January, but the Home Office expects that it will be refined, both in the coming months and after it is implemented. The government pledged to reduce the time it takes for work visas to be granted to eight weeks.
Most EU citizens will be issued an electronic visa and will need to use an online checking service to demonstrate their right to be in the U.K. when applying for a job or using public services. This is likely to become a contentious issue after campaigners for the rights of EU citizens criticized the EU Settlement Scheme for not providing physical evidence of status.
Innovators, ministers of religion, sportspeople, artists and entertainers from the EU will fall outside the points-based system, and will instead be allowed to apply to visit the U.K. through existing routes that already apply to non-EU specialists. Europeans visiting the U.K. for up to six months will be able to travel without a visa, but will not be allowed to work.
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott criticized the plan, saying it would be harder for U.K. firms to attract the workers they need at all skill levels.
“This isn’t an ‘Australian points-based system,’ which is a meaningless government soundbite,” she said. “It’s a salary threshold system, which will need to have so many exemptions, for the NHS, for social care and many parts of the private sector, that it will be meaningless.”