This morning, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) released its much-anticipated assessment of an Australian-style points-based system, which has been touted by this government as their immigration system of preference after Brexit. The report has endorsed a combined system, including employer-led job offers (and salary thresholds) and a points-based system for those without a job offer.
It recommends maintaining the current Tier 2 visa system for the majority of highly skilled migrants (currently the main non-EEA pathway to work in the UK, the Tier 2 already has some elements of a points-based system but requires the applicant to have job offer and predominantly relies on meeting salary requirements, with the threshold set at £30,000). As well, it recommends a points-based system replace the current Tier 1 (exceptional talent) visa, which the MAC describes as not 'working well, with the "bar" set too high.'
Other headline recommendations from the report include expanding the Tier 2 work visa to include medium-skilled migrants and reducing the salary threshold from £30,000 to £25,600.
Those who lean liberally towards immigration will criticise these recommendations for setting the salary threshold well above minimum wage earnings, essentially cutting off visa opportunities for ambitious migrants who, for a variety of reasons, wouldn’t immediately meet this requirement. And as always, outlining a specific figure like £25,600 will lead to questions about its arbitrary nature (is a migrant earning £25,000 really that different to someone earning £600 more yearly?). Meanwhile, those sceptical of migration will push back on the £4,400 drop in the threshold, as well as the recommendation that a cap on the number of migrants coming to the UK be abolished.
On balance, the report is better news for the liberal lot, recommending a simplified and more flexible system compared to the current set-up. The reduced salary threshold is a much more reasonable target for young, less experienced migrants to meet (especially when you combine it with the Government’s re-introduction of the two-year window in which foreign graduates from UK universities can stay and work in the UK). Swapping the dysfunctional Tier 1 visa route (which is so narrow and rigid, very few people qualify) for a lottery-esque points-based system will actually give some people a chance to live and work in the UK who wouldn’t have qualified before. And the proposal to use national pay scales (often lower than the migrant salary threshold) in areas like health and education means that the UK can recruit foreign workers into vital, under-staffed services, without the government further complicating things by selecting occupational ‘winners and losers’ for exemptions within the visa system.
As well, some of the more technical recommendations – like abolishing the Resident Labour Market Test – will dramatically simplify the process and shorten the timeline organisations must adhere to when hiring foreign workers. And the proposal of a 'pilot visa for "remote" areas of the UK' shows an open-mindedness to lowering salary thresholds further and devolving power to the regions (Scotland, for example, might be able to implement its desired system).
The MAC report illustrates just how overdue the UK is for an immigration policy shake-up. It reveals how misguided and off-kilter immigration policy has been for the last decade, as former Home Secretary and Prime Minister Theresa May crafted public policy to make it harder for skilled talent to work and settle in the UK. It also highlights areas where the current system remains messy and complex, including how difficult and unclear the pathway to settlement can be.
Far from a liberal guide to immigration, the MAC’s recommendations would make it much more difficult to work in the UK on a relatively low income; and the MAC warns that these types of changes may result in a hit to Britain's economic growth – something this Government will be relying on heavily to help fund its vast number of spending promises, if the Treasury doesn’t want to cut spending elsewhere or raise tax.
But if taken as whole, today’s MAC proposals would be an improvement in many areas of Britain’s immigration system. Perhaps that’s not saying much, but a step in the right direction is no doubt the step to take.