Whether you’re a leaver or remainer, one thing is very clear – post-Brexit, the immigration regime is going to look very different, and London immigration solicitors – and particularly EEA immigration solicitors – have been trying to unpick what it all means. With the recent Migration Advisory Committee report apparently adopted in full by Theresa May and the Conservatives at the Conservative party conference recently, it’s clear that significant changes are on the way both for EU citizens planning to come to the UK post-Brexit to look for work, and for those from outside the EU hoping to work in the UK. While it’s still not clear whether the UK and the EU will reach a deal before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, or even if the Conservatives will remain in power long enough to put their immigration strategy into practice, our top London immigration solicitors have had a look at what we could be facing post-Brexit.
EU citizens to lose free movement
It’s perhaps not surprising that the post-Brexit immigration strategy focusses heavily on the fact that EU citizens will no longer have priority as far as immigration is concerned. Free movement, a concept that has become second nature to many of the best immigration solicitors in London will no longer apply, and EU citizens will have to apply for permission to come to the UK alongside workers from outside the EU.
Of course, it’s always worth remembering that for EU citizens already living and working in the UK at the point of Brexit, or who come to the UK during the transition period, will be able to apply for settled status. The UK Government is keen to stress that the online application process is designed to be as straightforward as possible, with the bias towards those EU citizens who are living and working in the UK being allowed to remain in the UK on a permanent basis. How the process will work in practice remains to be seen, but it is currently being trialled in a few areas before nationwide rollout.
Skills rather than nationality will count
The emphasis of the Conservatives new manifesto on immigration focusses on skills rather than nationality. The emphasis will be on bringing skilled workers to the UK – something that may give little comfort to those sectors reliant on volumes of unskilled labour, such as agriculture, social care and construction.
The ‘skills’ will be evidenced by salary – so to pass the test to be a ‘skilled’ worker, an individual will have to earn a certain amount. The current salary threshold for non-EU citizens coming to the UK under the Tier 2 visa route is £30,000 but it’s not yet clear whether a new figure will be used to determine whether someone is skilled or not. Some commentators have already expressed concerns that if the threshold is £30,000, many sectors with roles that would normally be considered ‘skilled’ will not be able to recruit from overseas on this basis. Crucially, only 24% of EU workers in the UK earn over £30,000, giving some idea of the scale of the potential problem for employers (although of course many of those EU citizens already here may take advantage of settled status to remain in the UK, and in their role).
UK employers will have a role to play for those who wish to bring immediate family with them. This will be possible, but only if the UK employer is prepared to sponsor the family.
Another recommendation by the Migration Advisory Committee was the removal of the skilled worker ‘cap’ on immigration of 20,700 per year. This cap has already come under fire in 2018 to the extent that a number of medical and health professional roles had to be removed from the cap to ensure the NHS could function, so reliant is it on overseas labour. The crisis was fuelled by a fall in EU citizens coming to work in the UK’s health service following the Brexit referendum.
Less certainty for low-skilled workers
With UK unemployment at its lowest rate for some years, and many UK citizens simply not wishing to carry out lower paid unskilled work, the importation of a salary threshold effectively ruling out lower skilled workers leaves sectors reliant on this kind of labour in an uncertain position. While we have already seen the announcement of a short-term visa scheme for agricultural workers, there do not appear to be any plans to expand this on a sector by sector basis.
There has been some discussion around the expansion of the Youth Mobility Scheme to EU citizens. This scheme allows 18-30 year olds from specific countries: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Monaco, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong – to come and work in the UK for 2 years. The Migration Advisory Committee suggested extension of this scheme to cover young workers from EU countries might be appropriate, but it remains to be seen whether this will be adopted.
EU rights to be extended to visitors from ‘low risk’ countries
The fast-track arrangements that currently apply to EU citizens coming to the UK will be opened up to nationals from a wider range of countries, not just the EU. It’s envisaged that any necessary security and criminal record checks will be carried out in a US style, before arrival in the UK.
More details to follow
Theresa May’s government is to issue an immigration white paper in the next few weeks which will potentially contain more details on all these arrangements and more. There is still the possibility that some elements of free movement will remain for EU citizens, albeit linked to a trade deal and not as freestanding rights. There has been speculation that student exchange programmes might favour EU citizens; that the salary threshold might be set at a lower level for EU citizens, and that the youth mobility scheme could be engineered in favour of EU citizens.
From a business perspective too, it is hoped that the Government’s new immigration strategy will allow time for adjustment so that those sectors hit hardest can have an opportunity to plan and to introduce any necessary contingencies. Not only will the reduced access to workers be potentially problematic, many businesses reliant on EU labour will not have had to negotiate the minefield of the UK immigration system to sponsor employees before. These organisations will need to time to adjust.