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In context: Australian-style points-based system

Image credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/Press Association Images

In context: Australian-style points-based system

Any move by the UK Government to create an Australian-style points-based immigration system must include a commitment to a tailored approach to migration policy for Scotland - Scottish Government migration minister, Ben Macpherson

What’s it all about?

Freedom of movement between the UK and EU is expected to end after the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020 and the UK Government has plans to introduce an Australian-style points-based system before January 2021. Under this system, anyone wanting to work in the UK could be assigned points based on several professional and personal characteristics such as their proficiency in English, educational qualifications, occupation and willingness to work in particular areas of Britain.

So, what is the government doing about the proposal now?

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has been tasked with evaluating how this style of system would work but there’s one issue – while other parts of the UK might want to tighten immigration, Scotland needs to be supported in repopulation. I’ll come back to this point shortly.

What does putting ‘people before passports’ mean?

At the UK-Africa Investment Summit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said post-Brexit migration would put “people before passports”, meaning a fairer immigration system, where people would be treated “the same wherever they come from”. Thus, EU citizens wanting to live and work in the UK will be subject to the same treatment as non-EU citizens.

What are the realities of the Australian system?

It’s at the Australian government’s discretion to decide which occupations to put on the list. For example, when I lived in Australia, my British partner was studying to qualify for one of those occupations. Two years into his studies, the government changed the list and that occupation was no longer an option. Australia’s skilled visa system awards points to prospective migrants based on age, English-language skills, employment record and qualifications. The system is highly regulated, and the number of skilled visas is capped – in fact, permanent migration to Australia is capped and was reduced by 30,000 places, to 160,000 places for 2019-20. Even if you get to 65 points (the minimum in 2019) there is “no realistic chance of invitation” to permanent residency, so you are back at square one. But with a master’s degree, a high score on the English test and work experience in Australia, you can gain residency within a year.

Out of Australia’s highly competitive and restrictive immigration system, new (illegal) industries have formed around people’s desperation to extend their visas in the country. ‘Backstreet’ registered training organisations have been known to take money from prospective students, usually studying for a master’s, and then ‘guarantee’ the points needed to pass the skills test. Sometimes the provider will then go bankrupt – the money, and visas, are gone.

Is there also a salary threshold?

Under rules brought in by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary, experienced workers hoping to live in the UK have to be able to earn at least £30,000 per annum to qualify for a work visa. The issue split May’s cabinet, after ministers raised concerns that the threshold would restrict the NHS, public sector and businesses from recruiting staff post-Brexit. However, last week The Times reported the £30k requirement would be scrapped. At time of print, the UK Government had not confirmed this, but if true, it could be good news for the Scottish Government, which has expressed concern that the high threshold could negatively impact immigration.

In 2018, the median salary in Scotland was £23,833 and the country will struggle to attract and hold onto foreign workers if they must meet the much-higher threshold. Migration Minister Ben Macpherson told Holyrood the Scottish Government and business community “have made it unequivocally clear to the UK Government that their proposed £30,000 salary threshold would deeply damage Scotland’s economic, social and demographic prosperity”. He added that the restriction would be “catastrophic for rural communities and have a more significant impact on women and young people”.

How will this work in Scotland?

Powers over immigration are currently reserved and Macpherson has not been overly positive about how the new system will work here. Crucially, Macpherson says Scotland requires “new means and powers to be able to attract, recruit and welcome people to our country based on our needs, values and aspirations”. The country faces its own, unique, demographic challenges – including around an ageing population – and Brexit may lead to increased skills gaps and labour shortages in many sectors.

The Scottish Government has announced its proposal for “a Scottish Visa” as an additional option alongside other UK visas post-Brexit, offering a pathway to permanent settlement in Scotland with no salary threshold, nor a sponsorship role for employers. This could see responsibility for immigration policy “split” between the Scottish and UK Governments.

What’s next?

MAC is currently evaluating the proposal and held a consultation last year. A report is due to be delivered to the UK Government by the end of January and an immigration white paper is expected in March, with a new system to be in place once Britain leaves the post-Brexit transition period at the end of the year.

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