28 January 2020

Points mean prizes – but the devil will be in the detail when it comes to post-Brexit migration

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Though the Government has long promised an ‘Australian-style points’ system after Brexit, today’s report from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) makes clear how much work needs to be done before a catchy slogan becomes a workable policy.

And make no mistake, the ‘Australian-style points system’ is catchy. When we toured every nation and region of the UK with our National Conversation on Immigration, it was mentioned in every one of the 60 citizens’ panel discussions. It was popular too, seen as shorthand for a system that offers control and selectivity while admitting people to come and work in the UK.

As the MAC report points out, however, a points-based system can mean a lot of different things – from a very restrictive system to a very liberal one. So the devil will now be in the detail as the Government makes decisions about which attributes and qualifications merit more points than others.  The MAC makes some suggestions here – English language skills should be ‘essential’, it says, while age, qualifications, having studied in the UK, and priority areas such as STEM and creative skills could all merit points towards a visa.

It highlights the NHS and education as sectors that need a more flexible migration system, which will be broadly welcomed by the public. Most people, however, also think the care sector needs to be able to recruit staff from abroad – and the MAC report offers no solution for understaffed care homes, other than perhaps through a new temporary migration scheme, which would result in high staff turnover.

Most media reports have focused on the MAC’s recommendation to lower the salary threshold for some migrants from £30,000 to £25,600 – a move which will be welcomed by employers, making it easier to recruit people from overseas to medium-skilled roles.

That will make sense to most of the public: new ICM research for British Future found that only 20% of people consider ‘Taking a job in the UK with over £30,000 per year salary’ important enough to warrant a high number of points. We also found out what the public thinks should be prioritised in the new system: some 63% feel that ‘being high skilled’ should earn migrants high points in the system; 61% say that ‘having an occupation needed by the NHS’ should score highly; and 44% would give high points to those with skills or experience in a sector where there are high levels of vacancies (44%). Four in ten people think that good spoken and written English, a clean criminal record and an existing job offer should all attract high points too.

‘Taking a UK role as a teacher’ was also seen as valuable, with around six in ten people saying that should earn people high or medium points.  Taking up a job as a care worker fared similarly, with a majority allocating high or medium points too.

Overall, we found broad consensus for a more welcoming approach in many areas, including for high-skilled migration, students, NHS staff and seasonal workers. That was balanced by a desire to reduce lower-skilled migration – but with softer views on those coming to do jobs in sectors with a lot of vacancies or in socially important areas such as care work. The findings will be published in full next month in a new report.

Today’s MAC report offers some useful guidance to the Government on how it shapes these important changes to immigration policy. It offers little advice on integration, however, other than noting the importance of settlement and suggesting that the Government stops ramping up the cost to migrants of putting down roots and settling in the UK.

Theresa May, both as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, sought to break the link between migration and settlement, making it harder and more expensive for people who live here to commit to becoming British. Boris Johnson’s instincts may be quite different – though a proposed short-term visa for lower-skilled workers could be damaging to integration. Johnson and Priti Patel should be making, not breaking, the link to settlement – and the reform of immigration policy could include measures to encourage citizenship, for example by reducing its cost, one of the highest in the world.

Getting policy right for migrants once they are here, helping ensure their integration in the places where they live, may do more to secure public trust in the system than focusing on the numbers coming in. That could be another lesson that Johnson, who swiftly ditched the net migration target, could learn from his predecessor in Number Ten.

British Future’s research finds that most people are ‘balancers’ on immigration, wanting to manage the pressures while securing the gains it can bring. A more flexible, points-based system could help to do that – if it gets the balance right.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future