The UK’s ‘new’ points-based immigration system isn’t fairer, faster or firmer – it’s complete nonsense

While the government's current primary focus should be on protecting public health, it instead thinks it best to proceed at haste to end the rights of EU citizens to stay in the UK before setting out the new system under which they might remain

Hospital cleaner Hassan Akkad says he has to work 10 days to pay NHS surcharge

The government has started to spell out the new immigration system it wants to introduce post-Brexit. They have little time to waste either as the current timescale is this system will need to be passed in parliament and functioning by year’s end. This task is Herculean as the legal rulebook is already over 2,000 pages long with no time to waste.

Unfortunately, the government has set its first task to dismantle parts of the current system before having parliament consider what might replace it. So while its primary focus should be on protecting public health and reducing deaths from Covid-19, the government thought it best to proceed at haste to ending the rights of EU citizens to stay before setting out the new system under which they might remain. Prime minister Boris Johnson might say he owes his life to NHS staff, including EU citizens, but he hardly shows it in making one of his first acts since recovering from intensive care the removal of their rights to keep working in the NHS to save other lives during the current pandemic.

The “new” system he is proposing to launch is described as an Australian-style points-based system that will be “fairer, faster and firmer”. It’s also complete nonsense.

This system is not fair in how it deems many not highly skilled enough – based on salaries alone – to stay. It’s even less fair to charge these same heroes a health migration surcharge – of £400 per person annually on top of application fees charging up to 900% profit – to access the healthcare system that they deliver. What’s even worse is this money isn’t even earmarked for the NHS, with all of it dropping into a large black hole in the treasury.

Recently, the prime minister did a U-turn and said NHS staff and care workers would not be charged, or at least not during the current pandemic. This is still not a long-term commitment – nor does it change where and how the money is spent (namely, to a “general government fund“).

The new system is also not faster. The same sticking points will continue to apply. Background checks into any criminal record, past bankruptcies and ensuring taxes are paid are not to be found in any table of points waiting to be added up.

And the system will most definitely not be firmer. We know this from the government’s white paper which made it clear. Applications will be treated differently depending on the new trade deals agreed with countries post-Brexit. There will not be a single standard for all non-UK citizens to meet, but multiple standards depending on arbitrary nationality and various combinations of points.

The government’s original table was a great piece of propaganda. It gave a false impression of simplicity in only a few categories – and where the only qualifications earning points were holding a PhD in science or other subjects. But this is a world away from the reality. The white paper is again clear that there will be many more categories and factors included, such as giving points for education based not on qualifications, but experience instead. How many years graft equals a first class postgraduate qualification is yet to be decided. Discretion on what counts and for how much will play no less a central role in future as it does now.

What is worse is the fact that much of how this system will operate won’t be known until after it’s in place. Instead of getting Brexit done, the white paper is plain that it may be two or more years before a full first draft of points is sorted. This is neither fair, faster or firmer by any measure.

The government was warned upfront, too. They directed the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), an independent body, to recommend how a points-based system might be started. Their report made for painful reading – especially where they had to remind the government that, in fact, the UK has had a points-based system since 2008. Moreover, they recommended the current system in most ways to what the government proposed.

When faced with expert advice it didn’t want to hear about an immigration system the government still seems to know little about, it swiftly did the inevitable and dumped the MAC’s well-regarded chair in search of someone else.

Points-based systems exist in countries like Australia for a purpose. Namely, to increase migration overall. The idea is if earning points for qualifications, salary levels and language proficiency can guarantee a right to work, this will incentivise those who can, to pack their bags and move to Australia. And yet Johnson’s government remains bound to a manifesto commitment to cut, not raise, immigration. Instead of simplicity, he will create chaos.

Experts should not have the last word on immigration or other areas. But Johnson could do with taking advice from a few of us before he creates a creature looking the opposite of what is intended with damaging, long-term consequences for potentially years to come.

Thom Brooks is professor of law and government at Durham University.

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