The government intends to remove the cap on skilled workers and end the requirement for employers to carry out a resident labour market test before recruiting a worker from overseas, as recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). It is also proposing to introduce a "time-limited" transition route for temporary short-term workers at any skill level from certain "low risk" countries, in order to ease pressure on employers of lower skilled workers following the end of free movement from the EU.
Home secretary Sajid Javid described the proposals as "the biggest change to our immigration system in a generation".
Immigration law expert Euan Smith of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that "parts" of the government's white paper on immigration reform would be welcomed by businesses. However, there was no provision in the paper for what would happen if the UK exited the EU on 29 March 2019 without a formal withdrawal agreement in place, putting an immediate stop to the ability of those from the EU to come to the UK to work.
"The white paper is linked to the implementation of the withdrawal agreement," he said. "News today that the government is now proposing consulting with employers on the £30,000 salary threshold for skilled workers does suggest it would not be ready to be brought forward in time in the event of 'no deal'."
The new immigration system set out in the paper will be implemented on a phased basis from 2021. The government intends to publish full details of the plans, including draft immigration rules, for "extensive" consultation with businesses and the public in 2020.
Under the new system, the same rules would apply to skilled workers regardless of nationality "except where there are objective grounds to differentiate", such as in the context of a trade agreement or on the basis of risk. New visa routes would be opened to applications in autumn 2020, "to enable those who wish to come to the UK to apply in good time".
The new route for "highly skilled and skilled" workers, replacing the current Tier 2 route, will require employer sponsorship, and visas will last for up to five years. Individuals who meet the requirements will be entitled to bring their dependants to the UK, to switch to other immigration routes and, in some cases, to settle in the UK permanently.
There will be no annual cap on the number of individuals using the new immigration route, and the resident labour market test will be abolished. The minimum level of qualifications necessary will be reduced to the equivalent of the English 'A level'. The MAC will review the existing shortage occupation list (SOL), and report back to the government in spring 2019. The government will consult on whether to retain the current minimum salary threshold of £30,000, as recommended by the MAC, or whether a different threshold should be set.
The government does not intend to introduce a permanent migration route for low-skilled workers, following the findings of the MAC. It would, however, introduce a temporary route, to allow employers to transition from what it says is their reliance on lower skilled workers from the EU for certain jobs. Individuals from "lower risk" countries would be able to apply for a 12 month visa under this new route, and once this expires would have to wait for a 'cooling-off' period of 12 months before applying again.
Individuals using this route would not be entitled to bring their dependents to the UK, access benefits or apply to extend their stay or switch to other routes. They would, however, be entitled to move between employers, and there will be no employer sponsorship requirement attached to these visas. The government would retain the right to close the scheme "if economic conditions in the UK warrant that", and will fully review it in 2025.
The government is intending to "improve" the existing student visa, following the recommendations of the MAC in its separate report on international students. Students would be given a six month period, or one year if they have completed a PhD, in which to find permanent skilled work. They would be entitled to apply to switch into the skilled workers route up to three months before the end of their course, and for two years after graduation once they have returned home.
The white paper also proposes new measures to improve border security checks, including stricter UK criminality thresholds on refusal of entry and removals for EU citizens and requiring those from the EU to use a passport, rather than a national ID card, as identification. The government also intends to introduce an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) scheme for visitors who do not require a visa.