Boris Johnson’s new immigration plan spells potential disaster – if the way he’s treated EU nationals is any guide

The sponsorship system is a regulatory labyrinth. Despite claims that we aren’t shutting EU talent out, the government's new rules mean we should be on red alert for a crisis

Kerry Garcia
Wednesday 19 February 2020 12:35 GMT
Priti Patel vows tough immigration rules ahead of government commissioned review

It has been a month of difficult decisions for Boris Johnson – first HS2 and now post-Brexit immigration. In both cases, it is impossible to satisfy everyone. But, when it comes to immigration proposals announced this morning, there is cause for concern.

Balancing businesses’ desire to employ the best people and their reliance on non-British workers to resolve recruitment shortages, versus public sentiment that immigration must be kept under control, has perhaps never been more difficult. The timing is also tight; details of the new immigration system must be decided in 10 months – a gargantuan task.

Today’s announcement makes it clear that free movement will end from 2021, and European nationals wishing to come to the UK after 31 December 2020 will have to qualify under the new immigration rules in the same way as non-European nationals. Employers’ unfettered access to millions of European workers will come to an abrupt end.

Priti Patel refuses to say whether her parents would have been able to enter the UK under her immigration plans

Despite rhetoric about an Australian points-based system, most migrants will still need a job offer to come to the UK. Surprisingly, and contrary to the 2018 Brexit White Paper, the government announced it will not introduce any low skilled immigration routes – not even temporarily – to allow employers to adjust. Its view is that employers can rely on sufficient numbers of European nationals already in the UK to provide flexibility to meet labour market demands. Not only does it seem somewhat insulting to imply that existing European nationals will fill low skilled jobs for the foreseeable future, but it also seems unlikely that they alone will be able to shoulder the burden of meeting future needs, given the amount of European nationals currently leaving the UK. And let's not forget, the government’s attitude to those already here continues to sound alarm bells.

European nationals arriving in the UK before January 2021 must apply under the EU Settlement Scheme by 30 June 2021, or risk being here unlawfully. Many may ignorantly or deliberately fail to apply in time, leading to warnings of a second Windrush. We’ve already seen employers and individuals confused by the Settlement Scheme. Combine this with complex new immigration rules, ill-aligned with the needs of many sectors, and we should be on red alert for an immigration and skills crisis.

In practice, much of the "new" system looks like a fairly unimaginative extension of the current sponsorship regime. It seems that immigration will be controlled by finances, rather than caps or points, as the huge cost of hiring a non-British national will make employers think twice.

Currently, employers may only sponsor non-EEA workers to undertake highly skilled, professional or managerial roles. The minimum salary threshold is £30,000. From 2021, the skills threshold will be lowered and employers will be able to sponsor non-British nationals in medium-skilled roles, such as restaurant managers, IT technicians, and construction workers. However, there has been much controversy about the appropriate minimum salary threshold going forward.

Many employers argued for no minimum threshold other than the national minimum wage. However, if the salary level is set low, the concern is that immigration may rise and salaries may be undercut. If the minimum salary threshold is set too high, the expansion of the sponsorship scheme to cover medium-skilled roles will have little effect, as most individuals working in such roles are paid less than the current £30,000 threshold so would not qualify for sponsorship.

The changes announced are more complex than expected, but potentially fail to solve many of the underlying concerns. There will be a points-based system for those with job offers. The minimum salary for experienced workers will be £20,480 – lower than anticipated. However, points are awarded for salary and generally, only those earning at least £25,600 will have sufficient points. In an unexpected move, those with a PhD or who will be undertaking a shortage occupation role will be awarded additional points, meaning that they can be paid a lower salary and still receive sufficient points.

The government has clearly tried to find a compromise here but neither side is likely to be satisfied. Eight out of 10 respondents to the consultation on thresholds called for them to differ depending on the sector. Whether this will be achieved depends on the extent to which roles in particular sectors will be regarded as being "shortage occupation" roles, allowing applicants to trade points and be paid a lower salary. Otherwise, the threshold of £25,600 for non-shortage occupation roles will prove problematic for many medium-skilled roles that are often paid less.

A system reliant on sponsorship is also a worrying one for businesses’ bottom lines. It can cost tens of thousands to sponsor someone, with a myriad of fees. You name it, there’s a cost sponsor licence fees, health surcharge fees, visa application fees and more. There are also onerous reporting and record-keeping duties. Failure to comply risks losing your licence and no longer being able to sponsor non-British nationals – a disaster for those reliant on overseas labour.

The sponsorship system is a regulatory labyrinth, which many are blissfully unaware even exists. Our businesses and EU nationals risk a minefield ahead. Despite claims that we aren’t shutting EU talent out, the government isn’t making it easy or cheap for businesses to recruit them, or educating them properly about how to stay.

We can only hope that other government departments, including the NHS and the HS2 project, have taken into account these immigration fees and salary thresholds themselves. If not, they too risk chronic talent shortages come January.

Kerry Garcia is partner at Stevens & Bolton

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