MPs call for changes to points-based immigration system

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The Government's new points-based system for managing migration may favour recent graduates with paper qualifications over workers with long professional experience and ability, a report warned today.

The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee gave a "cautious welcome" to the implementation of the system, introduced last year, which is intended to ensure that migrants from outside the EU gain entry to the UK only if they have skills which are needed for the British economy.

But it said that changes are needed to fine tune the way in which points are allocated for different professions and skills, as well as the compliance responsibilities for companies recruiting from overseas.

The committee questioned why occupations such as "ballet dancer", which do not fit into the normal procedure for assessing skills shortages in the economy, should be kept on a separate list attracting additional points.

And committee chairman Keith Vaz challenged a special exemption for football players which means they are not required to be able to speak English to work in the UK.

With the number of job vacancies in the UK falling by a third over the last year to its lowest level since records started in 2001, the cross-party committee said it was "obvious and right" that employers should seek to recruit from the UK labour market before looking abroad.

The report acknowledged that there was a "genuine shortage" of skills in certain areas which must be filled by short-term recruitment from outside Europe in order to avoid damage to Britain's international competitiveness.

But it said that the Government's priority must be on retraining the British workforce, saying that it must "redouble its efforts to link skills shortages to training".

Mr Vaz said: "The introduction of a system of objective criteria to manage migration and shortages in the labour market is very welcome but we must not so oversimplify a complex issue that we get perverse outcomes.

"It seems spurious that a fresh masters graduate in their first job should qualify as a 'highly skilled migrant' when a businessperson of 25 years' global experience earning hundreds of thousands of pounds without a masters degree does not.

"Similarly, just tacking on lists of 'awkward' professions that don't fit the system is not a substitute for adapting the points structure so that it works.

"One of our key concerns remains the lack of an independent appeals process in immigration and asylum cases. This will lead to even more representations to MPs and ministers as an 'alternative appeals process' - a grave concern given that the UK Border Agency is spectacularly failing to meet its target of responding to 95% of correspondence within 20 days as it is, and many of our constituents are being advised that their asylum case may not be concluded before 2011.

"We have urged the UK Border Agency to address this problem many times. It is therefore imperative that the agency considerably improves its performance in processing the backlog of undecided cases, and in responding to MPs' representations.

"We also feel that discretion is being applied in illogical ways - for example, no special provision has been made for exceptional cases of international artists or performers who occasionally require emergency visas, rendering them unable to perform in this country - whereas in other situations special exemptions have been granted for no apparent reason: why, for example, should footballers be exempt from the requirement to speak English? That seems to be a case of money speaking louder than merit."

The co-chairmen of the parliamentary Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration, Labour MP Frank Field and Conservative Nicholas Soames said: "This report entirely ducks the main issue.

"According to Government figures, unless net migration is reduced by 75%, the UK's population will hit and then exceed 70 million in 20 years - and we will have to find homes for seven million migrants.

"The report has nothing to say on whether or not this points-based system can bring immigration under control. So far its impact has been trivial, with a reduction of only 8%. It is time the select committee - and Parliament - looked at the wood, not the trees."