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Proposed points-based immigration rules prioritise STEM

Proposed changes to the UK’s immigration rules prioritise technical expertise, although industry leaders have warned that they could be disastrous for construction, manufacturing, and other sectors.

The points-based rules will prioritise high-salary and high-skilled workers and will ostensibly put an end to immigration of non-English speakers.

Points will be assigned for certain criteria and only award visas to applicants who have 70 points and who meet “essential criteria”: fluency in English and a job offer from an approved sponsor at an appropriate skill level. Having a PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job gives a boost of 20 points, as does having a job offer in a designated shortage occupation such as mechanical engineering, data science, electrical and electronic engineering, civil engineering, cyber security, computer science, and physics.

Stephanie Baxter, IET Education, Skills and Innovation Lead, commented: “The skills shortage in engineering remains an ongoing concern for companies in the UK, with not enough engineers to meet demand, so recognising them in this new points system is welcome. Our latest Skills Survey revealed that 53 per cent of companies are concerned that a shortage of engineers in the UK is a threat to their business. As well as welcoming engineers from other countries into the UK, the government must ensure there is support and initiatives for home-grown talent.”

A higher salary offer corresponds to more points, with the annual salary threshold set at £25,600. Some concessions may be available to those earning £20,480-25,600 if they meet other requirements, with exemptions for students, graduates, NHS workers, agricultural workers, and exceptional scientists and other researchers (who may be able to come to the UK without a job offer under the “global talent scheme”).

There appears to be no general avenue for entry for low-skilled workers.

The independent Migration Advisory Committee estimates that approximately 70 per cent of EEA citizens who migrated to the UK since 2004 would not be eligible for a visa under these rules. However, it also predicts that replacing free movement with a points-based system could cut economic growth and may have “zero effect” on providing more jobs for British people.

The proposed system, which is likely to pass smoothly through Parliament, will come into force from the beginning of 2021, and will treat EU and non-EU citizens arriving after that date the same. The free movement of EU citizens across the bloc (particularly “cheap labour from Europe”) has been frequently cited as a key influence in the 2016 EU referendum result, and the government has consistently promised to reduce net migration.

Speaking at a visit to Imperial College London, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “We have got a number of routes through the points-based immigration scheme that will enable people to come here with the right kinds of skills that can support our country and our economy.”

In a policy document, the government described the system as “firm but fair” and stated that it is important “to shift the focus of our economy away from reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust.”

The proposals have been criticised by opposition parties and industry leaders, with the latter arguing that many industries will take a severe blow on account of labour shortages. Unison said that the plans “spell absolute disaster” for the care sector, the Royal College of Nursing warned that the proposals “will not meet the health and care needs of the population”, the National Farmers’ Union expressed “serious concern” about lack of recognition of the needs of the sector in the proposals, and the Food and Drink Federation suggested that many vital jobs in food production would not qualify under the points-based system. The British Chambers of Commerce warned that critical labour shortages will require companies to maintain access to overseas workers at all skill levels and called for flexibility and simplicity in the application system.

Confederation of British Industry director Carolyn Fairbairn welcomed some aspects of the new system, such as abolishing the cap on skilled visas, but also warned that some sectors would be hard hit by the changes.

“In some sectors firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses. With already low unemployment, firms in care, construction, hospitality, food and drink could be most affected,” she said. “Firms know that hiring from overseas and investing in the skills of their workforce and new technologies is not an 'either or' choice – both are needed to drive the economy forward.”

She called for the shortage occupations list to be regularly reviewed with promises of further flexibility for the new system to be effective. The government’s policy document acknowledges that it is necessary to monitor the labour market to monitor pressures in key sectors.

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