Devolved ministers unite to contest ‘restrictive’ UK immigration policy

Representatives from NI, Wales and Scotland have written to the UK immigration minister calling for an ‘immediate review’ of the immigration system.

Kevin Foster

Processes for skilled workers considering coming to the UK are ‘inflexible, costly and bureaucratic.’ Additionally, they serve to ‘exclude many of the key workers that we need, many of whom have been crucial during the Covid-19 pandemic.’

These warnings were penned by Northern Ireland economy minister, Gordon Lyons, Welsh social justice minister, Jane Hutt, and Scotland’s minister for culture, Europe and international development, Neil Gray, in a letter to Kevin Foster, UK immigration minister.

The representatives from the three devolved nations caution of the ‘severe labour and skills shortages’ in all four UK nations, and that the UK government has failed to ‘work constructively’ with devolved administrations to deal with the issue. 

‘Immediate’ review of the system

The politicians call on the Home Office to “immediately introduce” regular meetings with the four nations to discuss these pressing issues.

“The UK government has said it wants the immigration system to work for all parts of the UK.

“Without a commitment to regular and meaningful engagement with the devolved governments, this is simply not possible,” the letter read.

Describing the immigration skills and health surcharges as an ‘insurmountable barriers for both workers and employers,’ the UK ministers are urging Westminster for an ‘immediate review’ of the system.

The ministers added that, as it stands, Britain has one of the costliest immigration systems, stating ‘this cannot continue if it is to be an attractive destination for global talent moving forward.’

The devolved nation ministers are not alone in heeding such warnings about the impact the government’s new points-based immigration system is having on the UK workforce.

In response to the news that devolved ministers are joining forces to challenge ‘restrictive’ UK immigration policy, Charles Burnett, immigration lawyer at Gherson Solicitors, told LFF:

“Brexit was sold to the British people on the promise that it would make the UK more secure, more fair and more global. In the first year since withdrawal, however, policymakers have failed to rise to the occasion, with potentially serious consequences for the livelihoods of thousands of people in the UK. 

“They will continue to do so unless there is a meaningful shift in immigration policy, away from isolationism and towards a more inclusive approach to migrants, in which devolved and local administrations will have a key role to play. 

“Westminster’s failure to understand that role risks having a severe, long-term, impact on the labour market and the people across all four nations will suffer for it,” Burnett added.

Taking control of immigration

Taking control of immigration was one of the leading themes of the Leave campaign during the 2016 EU referendum. In a bid to limit the number of unskilled migrants entering Britain, in January 2021, the UK introduced a new points-based immigration system, meaning that anyone who wants to live and work in the UK, including those from the EU, have to apply for a visa based on points.

The exception to this is Irish citizens, who are still able to live and work in the UK as part of the Common Travel Area.

To qualify for a visa, migrant workers who want to move to the UK will have to qualify for 70 points.

Points are awarded on things like being able to speak English and having a job offer from an approved employer for a skilled job, to which applicants would be awarded 50 points. The additional 20 points could be awarded if the applicant is due to be paid at least £25,600 a year.

Application fees vary, with a standard fee costing between £610 and £1,408 per person, if an applicant’s skills are on a list of skills that the UK has shortages of.

Jobseekers also have to pay a health surcharge of £624 per person per year when they apply. The money is refunded if they don’t get a visa.

Applicants also need to show that they have the means to support themselves in Britain, typically having at least £1,270 available.

The new points-based system has been criticised, with businesses talking of fears of labour shortages and that the new rules ‘create conditions for exploitation.’

The agricultural industry has condemned the system, noting how the rules designed to limit numbers of low-skilled workers coming to the UK will leave them short of staff to pick fruit and crops.

Scrambling to attract and retain talent

The new immigration scheme has also been questioned in relation to its impact on the UK economy.

A report by the Resolution Foundation found while some industries were likely to face ‘significant change’ following the introduction of a points-based immigration system last year, the new scheme would do little to change the UK’s ‘low investment, low productivity challenges.’

 In response to the think-tank’s report, Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK, said businesses of all sizes had been scrambling to attract and retain talent after the change last year, arguing that the problems were unlikely to end soon.

“I can’t see this situation changing in the long term unless key skill shortages are identified earlier, visa and sponsorship concessions are made for certain job categories and there is more investment into upskilling resident workers,” he said. 

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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