With opinion polls indicating victory and a significant majority for the Conservative Party in the June election, we take a look here at Conservative proposals for UK immigration if they are re-elected to power.
Maintaining its commitment to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, the manifesto introduced by Prime Minister, Theresa May, promises to “continue to bear down on immigration from outside the European Union” to reduce immigration to the UK to “sustainable levels”.
The manifesto sets out the aims of a Conservative government but, as is perhaps to be expected, only in broad brush statements. The areas that appear set to be hardest hit by the new provisions relate to family visas, companies sponsoring skilled migrant workers and international students. The position of European nationals in the UK or seeking to come to the UK in the future remains unclear.
Despite claiming to be the party of hard working families, the Conservatives propose to increase the earnings threshold for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas although the proposed figure is not specified.
The onerous and rigid financial requirements already in place are contentious and have been challenged (mostly) unsuccessfully in the courts (the Supreme Court has ruled in the case of MM that the financial requirement itself is lawful but that additional consideration may be required before refusing an application on financial grounds). Partner applications which would otherwise fall for refusal, particularly for failing to meet the existing financial requirement, are presently subject to a moratorium whilst the Government reconsiders its position in light of the case of MM (see also the earlier RLegal News postings). The proposal to increase the earnings threshold is a further blow to those separated by the operation of this rule.
Tier 2 Sponsored Skilled Workers
The manifesto states that “skilled immigration should not be a way for government or business to avoid their obligations to improve the skills of the British workforce.” To this end, a Conservative government will increase the Immigration Skills Charge (the “Skills Levy”) from £1000 to £2000 per year per skilled worker by the end of the next parliament. The revenue generated by this measure will be invested in higher level skills training for resident workers.
Larger employers will be able to swallow this additional cost but its impact will likely be felt greatest in SMEs and start-ups.
European Union / EEA nationals post-Brexit
No clear indication is given as to how a post-Brexit UK immigration system will deal with EEA nationals already in the UK or those wishing to come in the future.
A Conservative government will establish an immigration policy aimed at reducing and controlling the number of people who come to the UK from the European Union while still attracting the “skilled workers our economy needs.”
Tier 4 Students
The manifesto promises to “toughen the visa requirements for students” to ensure that the UK “maintains high standards”. Students will be expected to leave the UK at the end of their studies unless they meet new, higher requirements to allow them to work in the UK post-study.
IHS increases for Tier 2 Sponsored Skilled Workers and Tier 4 Students
The Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) will be increased from £200 to £600 per year for foreign workers and from £150 per year to £450 per year for foreign students. This increase is to nominally “cover their use of the NHS” but in reality is paid up front whether the applicant accesses the NHS or not.
In a measure which will cut across all immigration categories, new NHS numbers will not be issued to patients until their immigration eligibility has been verified.
A Conservative government will not bring the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law and will review the UK’s human rights legal framework once Brexit negotiations have concluded. The UK will remain a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next Parliament (this appears to remain confused in public perception, and to some extent wilfully so in the case of Government, with membership of the European Union).
The future for UK immigration law
One things appears to be clear, significant change looks to be on the way for UK immigration law. It looks increasingly likely that the existing Points Based System will face a radical overhaul to cope with the challenges faced by Brexit.
The NHS more than any other public service is likely to suffer most from Brexit and the further tightening of the Tier 2 Sponsored Skilled Worker category. Following the Brexit decision, only 96 nurses joined the NHS from other European countries in December 2016, a drop from 1,304 in July, the month after the referendum. At the same time, figures from 80 of the 136 NHS acute trusts in England show that 2,700 EU nurses left the health service in 2016, compared to 1,600 in 2014 – a 68% increase.
Janet Davies, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nurses commented that Conservative policy on Brexit negotiations “risks turning off the supply of qualified nurses from around the world at the very moment the health service is in a staffing crisis like never before.”
As has proven a consistent theme in Conservative immigration policy, the rhetoric of blindly pursuing a reduction in net migration numbers belies the highly complex outcome. Tightening restrictions on Tier 2 workers and reducing migration from Europe will have a near immediate impact on the provision of health and care for the elderly in the UK. Other industry areas are set to suffer. The Institute of Directors has repeated in the last week that whilst the UK remains at full employment, skills shortages can only be met by recruitment from outside the UK. Any increase or obstacle to the recruitment of, for example, skilled IT workers will increase costs and make UK employers less competitive.
An effective immigration policy is far too complex a matter to be defined within an attention-grabbing headline, yet it seems that policy is set on this basis. Quite often it appears that measures are announced to attract votes without any real consideration of the consequences. On a personal level, after a recent extended stay in my local NHS hospital, I am only too grateful to the doctors and nurses from the myriad of countries that provided the excellent care I received. I am fearful that whilst the intention of upskilling the UK workforce to fill skills shortages is well intentioned, the practical effects will be a shortage of skilled workers across the working spectrum for the foreseeable future, a future counted in terms of tens of years during which time the UK will suffer competitively and in the provision of key public services.
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