Ever since Brexit became a reality, the question on most employers’ lips has been “how will leaving the EU impact my workforce?”

Now, as the transition period plays out, the government has finally unveiled how it’s “Australian-style” points-based immigration system will work in practice.

With immigration one of the driving forces behind the Brexit referendum and a key component of the Conservative’s election campaign, the message is largely as anticipated: move away from relying on “cheap labour” from Europe and invest in homegrown talent.

Speaking on the government’s aims, Home Secretary Priti Patel told BBC Breakfast that the government is keen to “encourage people with the right talent” and “reduce the levels of people coming to the UK with low skills”. It is hoped that stricter rules will encourage employers to tap into eight million “economically inactive” workers in the UK – although many remain sceptical that British people will be willing, or indeed able, to pick up the shortfall left by EU workers.

For many employers, the thought of sacrificing a significant proportion of their workforce to stricter immigration rules will be unnerving. Indeed, business groups representing sectors such as farming, hospitality and care have expressed deep concerns over looming labour shortages. However, Patel insists that the “firm and fair” system will help to “create a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”, adding “employers will need to adjust”.

The finer details

Free movement will end on 1 January 2021. From this date, overseas citizens will have to score a minimum of 70 points across defined categories to be able to work in the UK. In terms of eligibility criteria, all applicants, from both EU and non-EU countries, will need to be considered ‘skilled’, speak English and have an on-the-table job offer.

1. Applicants must be ‘skilled’

In a policy statement published on 19 February, the government confirmed that it will aim to reduce overall levels of migration by giving “top priority to those with the highest skills and greatest talents: scientists, engineers, academics and other highly-skilled workers”. Under current rules, ‘skilled’ applicants are those qualified to graduate level; however, the new system will expand the definition of skilled to include workers educated to A-level or their national equivalent. The current cap on the number of skilled workers granted entry into the UK will also be lifted.

2. Applicants must speak English

The statement confirms that applicants must be able to speak English “at [the] required level”. No further details are provided.

3. Applicants must be guaranteed a job paying at least £25,600

From 2021, anyone wishing to work in the UK must have secured a job offer with a salary of £25,600. However, in sectors with particular skills shortages, this threshold will be lowered to £20,480. In addition, highly-skilled individuals, who achieve the required level of points in other categories, will be able to obtain a visa without a firm job offer “if endorsed by a relevant and competent body”. The government has also stated that a “broader, unsponsored route” will be created to allow a small number of the most highly-skilled workers to enter the UK without a confirmed offer of employment.

What if workers don't meet the criteria?

Applicants won’t necessarily need to meet each individual requirement in order to come to the UK for work. The government has confirmed that under the points-based system, applicants will be able to “trade” certain characteristics. In other words, a specific job offer or qualification in a relevant subject may offset a lower salary.

For example, if an employee has a job offer of £22,000, they will be awarded 0 points against salary as this is less than the £25,600 requirement. However, as it is still above the lower limit of £20,480, this alone doesn’t automatically mean they will be denied entry. The applicant may still achieve the required 70 points by picking up points in the following “tradable” categories:

  • “Offer of job by approved sponsor” (20 points)
  • “Job at appropriate skill level” (20 points)
  • “Speaks English at required level” (10 points)
  • “Job in a shortage occupation” (20 points)

What about self-employed workers?

The statement confirms that there will be no dedicated route for self-employed people coming to the UK. This will put a stop to freelancers and independent tradespeople arriving in the UK without a guaranteed work and will force such individuals to seek out employed positions instead.

What happens now?

The lack of provision for low-paid workers has been heavily criticised by industry leaders, who have voiced concerns over staffing shortages and urged the government “not to turn the tap off overnight”. However, recognising that the new system “represents a significant change for employers”, the government has promised a phased approach starting from 2021. It has committed to a “comprehensive programme of communication and engagement in the coming months” to help businesses adapt to the changes, and will shortly be publishing a response to the Law Commission Report, which pushed the government for details on how it will ensure a streamlined and simplified system.

For now, the EU Settlement Scheme remains open, and employers looking to retain existing EU staff should encourage workers to apply online ahead of the 20 June 2021 deadline. For further guidance on supporting EU citizens to apply for settled status, read our simple guide.

Concerned about the impact of Brexit on your workforce?

To find out how Ellis Whittam can help your business to stay on track through high-quality Employment Law support, call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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James Tamm

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