Points-based system 'to focus on skilled immigrants'

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Low-skilled workers from outside the EU will not normally be allowed into Britain under the Government's new immigration system, it was announced today.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke revealed details of a controversial points-based system which will focus on foreigners who are highly skilled or who have been sponsored by industry or colleges.

Like similar schemes in the US and Australia, people who want to come to the UK will be awarded points for factors including their age, qualifications, previous earnings and whether they have a job offer.

It will consolidate more than 80 existing work and study immigration schemes into five tiers:

* Tier One - highly skilled individuals such as doctors, scientists or entrepreneurs;

* Tier Two - skilled workers with a job offer such as nurses, teachers or engineers;

* Tier Three - low-skilled workers filling specific temporary labour shortages such as builders for a particular project;

* Tier Four - students;

* Tier Five - "youth mobility" and temporary workers, such as working holidaymakers, musicians coming to play a concert, sportspeople coming to compete, volunteers or non-preaching religious workers.

Mr Clarke said: "Today's announcement sets out the Government's policy to deliver a firm but fair, simpler, more transparent and more rigorous system which will benefit our economy and protect our borders.

"Crucially, it will allow us to ensure that only those people with the skills the UK needs come to this country while preventing those without these skills applying.

"Foreign workers or students will also in future need a UK sponsor to vouch for them, ensuring that businesses and colleges take responsibility for making sure foreign workers and students comply with visa rules."

Existing immigration routes, such as one run by the Department of Health for postgraduate doctors and dentists, will end as the new system is phased in, the Home Office said.

Mr Clarke said the new regime would "not take effect overnight" but added that constructive talks had already been established between industry and the Government.

Proposals for the new system, which was first announced in February last year, said: "Our starting point is that employers should look first to recruit from the UK and expanded EU before recruiting migrants from outside the EU.

"The system should therefore be focused primarily on bringing in migrants who are highly skilled or to do key jobs that cannot be filled from the domestic labour force or from the EU."

Routes into the UK will only be open to low-skilled workers from Tier Three if a new skills advisory body identifies particular labour shortages.

The schemes would be run by an operator and could require immigrants to have open return tickets and to have their biometrics taken in a bid to prevent them disappearing into the black market.

These low-skilled workers would only be allowed to stay for 12 months maximum and would not be allowed to bring spouses or children to Britain with them.

In the students category, colleges and universities will have to be on a list of approved sponsors in a bid to crack down on people who apply to bogus colleges and disappear into the black market.

Tier Five for young people coming to work temporarily into the UK will apply to those aged 18 to 30 and will allow them to stay for up to two years.

Today's document said there may be a need to cap overall numbers in Tier Five, adding: "The overall figure could initially be based roughly on the number of people entering through existing schemes and then adjusted according to changing demands, the level of abuse of the scheme, or the state of the UK economy."

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants warned that the changes could lead to workers being exploited and damage efforts to end world poverty.

Chief executive Habib Rahman said: "We welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the positive economic contribution of migrants and recognise the positive intention behind the points system to restore public confidence in the immigration system and ensure migrants are welcome in the UK.

"However, denying all possibility of settling in the UK to lower skilled and unskilled migrant workers could create a workforce ripe for abuse by exploitative employers.

"Temporary workers have fewer employment rights in any case. Temporary settlement rights will be a double whammy, ensuring a whole group of workers are unable to seek remedy for abuse they suffer.

"Some may have to enter the irregular employment sector to escape such abuse.

"Such factors could drive down employment conditions for everyone.

"We should also recognise that migrant workers who send money home are keeping families and towns in some parts of the developing world going.

"The points system will make it much harder for a group of workers and the families they support at home to find a route out of poverty through migration because the return on their investment in migration will be much reduced.

"The Government says it is committed to Making Poverty History in the developing world - how is making migration harder for people from those countries going to help that?"

Danny Sriskandarajah, senior research fellow at centre-left think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), said: "The Government's planned overhaul of the managed migration system is a welcome attempt to harness the benefits of migration and reassure a sceptical public that the immigration system is under control.

"However, this attempt to clarify and simplify the system will only work if the scheme proves flexible enough to respond to actual demand, both for lower and higher skilled workers.

"The ultimate test will be whether the system finds the right workers for the right jobs across the skills spectrum."

Launching the strategy, immigration minister Tony McNulty said it would reduce immigration by the "wrong" sort of people.

"This will go to dampening down demand from the wrong people out in other countries," he said.

"It will effectively push the borders back so we don't have that reservoir of people."

The points system only applies to work visas and not to other forms of immigration, such as "ancestral" applications by other family members.

In response to claims that the IT challenges of merging several Home Office computer systems would lead to delay, the Home Secretary said: "I'm very confident that this can be introduced successfully. It needs to be properly prepared and the transitions need to be properly managed."

The chairman of right-wing immigration think-tank Migrationwatch, Sir Andrew Green, said: "These proposals have a key weakness - they do not distinguish between those who wish to come to work for just a few years and those coming to settle.

"A scheme with no limit on settlement is no use.

"Both the Australians and Americans, who have points systems, have an annual limit decided by the Government.

"This new scheme will do nothing to meet the widespread public concern about the massive levels of foreign immigration, now running at a third of a million a year, which this Government has stimulated."

The shadow immigration minister Damian Green said: "We welcome a points-based system in principle - it is something we have been suggesting for a long time.

"It is the practical application we have concerns about.

"This Government has a long record of making grand announcements about immigration policy that do not turn into anything practical.

"What is undermining immigration policy is a lack of basic information and control.

"This Government still has no control over our borders, no proper information about how many people are living here illegally, and no record of quickly removing those who have exhausted the appeals process.

"This Government predicted a maximum of 13,000 immigrants a year would arrive from EU accession countries - there are now 200,000 a year coming into the country.

"And this Government still has not told us what the effect on immigration levels or what the cost of this system will be."

He added: "Until the Government addresses this chronic lack of basic information it cannot even begin to establish a civilised and credible immigration and asylum policy that is fair to the migrant and the British taxpayer and responsive to the needs of the British economy."

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: "For too long, immigration has been a political football, so today's move should be welcomed in principle.

"But given the Government's track record on handling immigration issues, the details of these proposals will need proper scrutiny.

"Legal migrants make up only 8% of the UK's population, but generate 10% of our GDP.

"Immigrants provide skills that the UK simply cannot economically afford to do without."

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