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Commons Library briefing: The UK's points-based system for immigration

Published Monday, July 18, 2016

The 2015 General Election and the recent EU referendum campaigns have renewed interest in the UK's points-based system for immigration and comparable models in other countries, notably Australia.

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Points-based selection systems and the alternatives

Points-based immigration systems select migrants on the basis of having certain valued attributes, such as qualifications, occupation and language skills. Advocates of points-based models tend to emphasise their transparency and flexibility. But the approach has been criticised on the grounds that it does not necessarily ensure that migrants find employment at an appropriate skill level after entry.

In recent years, many countries have moved away from simply relying on pure points-based systems. For example, Canada and Australia (both early adopters of points-based systems) have some additional work visa categories which are not points-based. Canada, Australia and several other countries have also moved towards “hybrid selection systems”, which incorporate elements of different types of selection models. For example, some countries have adapted their points-based systems in order to include a greater role for employers in selecting suitable migrant workers.

Calls for an Australian-style system for the UK

The Labour Government introduced a couple of points-based visa categories in the early 2000s. It then launched an overarching “points-based” system for non-EEA national workers and students in 2008, which it described as an “Australian-style” system. Since 2008, there have been many further calls for the UK to adopt an “Australian points-based system”, although it is not always obvious what specific features advocates are referring to.

These calls may partly be due to the fact that the UK’s system has undergone many changes. It varies from other points-based systems in several respects and has always combined elements of different selection models. For example, most visa categories within the points-based system require the visa applicant to have a sponsor (e.g. an employer) and a fixed job/study offer, and there is no scope for flexibility over the number of points awarded, or the possibility to off-set points accrued in one category against those needed in another. Some commentators have questioned the whether the UK has a points-based system other than in name.

Some experts have questioned the assumption that the “Australian system” would be appropriate for the UK. They highlight the different demographic, economic and policy contexts in the two countries, and emphasise that Australia (and other comparable countries) operates a number of other work-based visa categories in addition to points-based schemes.

How the UK’s points-based system works in practice

There are five ‘tiers’ to the points-based system. These cater for high skill/high value migrants; sponsored skilled workers; low-skilled workers; students; and temporary workers. Each tier contains several different visa categories (and some sub-categories), with varying associated conditions and mandatory eligibility requirements. The tier for low-skilled workers has never been used, because it has been assumed that any need for low-skilled workers can be met from within the UK/European Economic Area (EEA) workforce.

Most categories within the points-based system require a visa sponsor (typically, a licensed employer or education provider). In most cases, applying for a visa is a two stage process which requires the sponsor and visa applicant to make separate applications to UKVI. Each mandatory requirement attracts a fixed number of points, therefore the ‘points’ assessment is arguably largely symbolic.

There are limits on the number of visas available in certain visa categories, notably the category for sponsored skilled workers (Tier 2 General). A separate points test is used to determine how to choose between applicants for restricted visas in the Tier 2 category.

The design of the points-based system was intended to promote simplicity, transparency, objectivity, robustness and flexibility. Some stakeholders have questioned whether it meets these standards in practice. For example, the Immigration Rules and policy guidance for each visa category are extremely lengthy and prescriptive, and often modified. The emphasis on ‘hard’ education and professional qualifications and salary thresholds, rather than ‘soft’ skills and experience, has posed particular difficulties for certain sectors .Various exceptions and workaround solutions have been introduced in order to accommodate the needs of specific sectors, but arguably at the cost of increasing the complexity of the system. Some trade-offs were perhaps inevitable given the inherent tensions between some of the objectives, and difficulties in designing a system which caters for such a broad spectrum of interests and sectors.

Might Brexit lead to further changes to the points-based system?

Brexit offers the potential to apply the same immigration controls on European and non-EU/EEA migrants, although this will depend on what kind of future relationship the UK has with the EU/EEA and whether it continues to be bound by the principle of free movement to any extent.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7662

Author: Melanie Gower

Topic: Immigration

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