Greater control of the UK's immigration policy was, for many, a fundamental tenet of the campaign to leave the EU. Over recent years, calls by the UK Government to reduce immigration levels appeared to attract a certain level of public support. The UK Government's policy on immigration has so far focused on finding ways to reduce immigration levels in general, and low skilled immigration in particular. As recently as February 2020, the policy statement published by the Home Office on the future points-based system, which is due to come into force on 1 January 2021, stated that:
"We are ending free movement and will introduce an Immigration Bill to bring in a firm and fair points-based system that will attract the high-skilled workers we need to contribute to our economy, our communities and our public services. We intend to create a high wage, high-skill, high productivity economy."
This policy statement was written just before the effects of COVID-19 began to be felt. But could the pandemic have diminished the extent to which that intention now resonates with the general public?
The Immigration Bill which received its second reading in the House of Commons in May, and which will now continue its passage through Parliament, will end freedom of movement for EU nationals. The introduction of the new points-based system will follow closely behind and will apply equally to EU nationals and other overseas workers who want to live and work in the UK for the first time.
It is currently intended to permit employers to sponsor employees to carry out medium and highly skilled roles provided that the jobs are paid at a sufficient level - which in most cases will be the higher of £25,600 or the "going rate" for the job as set out in the new rules. Only those employers who have the resources to pay the sponsorship fees and associated costs will be able to benefit from the new system (the fees may be prohibitive for certain employers even if they are eligible for sponsorship). Employers who have so-called 'low-skilled' jobs to fill may be left struggling to replace the flow of EU nationals after January 2021 once recruitment resumes to more normal levels.
Throughout the consultation process on the new rules, many employers have raised concerns about this 'gap' in the provision of visas for so called 'low-skilled' jobs - so the proposed gap isn’t new. However, what may have changed is the tide of public opinion in relation to such roles. According to a recent poll carried out for the think tank British Future, the pandemic may have changed public opinion of the value of 'low-skilled' jobs with a significant number of those polled reporting that they now value them more than before. Many employers have continued to raise concerns about labour shortages in 'lower-skilled' jobs.
For example, the social care sector and some food processing businesses have been warning of recruitment shortages for a considerable period. It has been estimated by 'Skills for Care' which publishes data about the social care workforce, that around 20% of care workers across the UK are migrants and the percentage is higher in certain regions of the UK.
While the UK Government remains committed to the new system, we may find that there is a renewed call to reconsider the suitability of the new rules. Indeed, that call can be heard already from certain politicians and sections of the media. Some may ask whether it is sensible to now include jobs which have proven to be of critical importance and on which we have relied on so heavily.
An example of the impact that COVID-19 has had already on immigration policy was evident when, on 21 May 2020, the UK Government decided to exempt care workers and other NHS staff from the Immigration Health Surcharge - currently £400 and set to rise to £624 per year. This significant change in policy followed pressure from politicians and the public who argued that those front-line staff should not have to pay additional fees towards the NHS when they were already paying taxes. This waiver was a considerable concession which would have been unlikely had it not been for COVID-19.
COVID-19 has changed almost every area of our lives. Whether or not it has any further impact on immigration policy remains to be seen.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman on 22 June 2020