Only skilled workers will be granted visas under the new points-based immigration system

As announced last week, under proposed plans for the new point-based immigration system (taking effect from January next year) low-skilled workers from overseas would be denied a visa to work in the UK (1). EU and non-EU workers who wish to work in the UK after free movement ends on 31st December must meet certain criteria or an equivalent of 70 points (2).

The policy paper states that: “For too long, distorted by European free movement rights, the immigration system has been failing to meet the needs of the British people. Failing to deliver benefits across the UK and failing the highly-skilled migrants from around the world who want to come to the UK and make a contribution to our economy and society.”

But has it really been ‘failing’ the British people? Arguably not. Many critics (like myself) are seriously concerned about the impact shutting out low-skilled workers will have on the economy and British business. This could have a disastrous effect on core industries such as social care, agriculture and hospitality which heavily rely on such workers to fill vacancies (1). As referenced by Sky News, the Home Office estimates that 70% of EU workers currently in the UK would not meet the requirements under the new system.

Points will be awarded against set criteria, including; ‘having an approved sponsor; a job offer or a job at an appropriate skill level; the ability to speak English; the salary available to them and their qualifications’ (2). The most ‘basic requirements’ being ‘English language skills and the offer of a skilled job with an approved sponsor which would generate 50 points’ (2).

And what about the impact on small businesses who rely on hiring overseas workers to fill their vacancies? A sentiment echoed by the CBI. How can they expect to grow when the salary threshold for skilled workers will now be set at £25,600 (except in areas where there are skills shortages, such as nursing, where a ‘floor’ of £20,480 would be acceptable) (2). This does follow recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee to lower the threshold to make sponsorship of skilled workers more affordable, but removing low-skilled workers from the equation removes options, opportunities and limits talent pools.

The Home Secretary’s view is that this new scheme would bring “the brightest and the best” to the UK and “make sure we have a high-skilled, highly trained and highly productive economy in the future”, encouraging businesses to invest in ‘staff retention and training and to develop automation technology’ (2). But technology and expensive training is not necessarily an option for smaller independent businesses. They need a flexible labour pool to manage costs and cash flow as they fight to survive in our current economic climate – how can they simply “adapt and adjust” overnight as she puts it?

CBI Director General, Carolyn Fairbairn recognises that employers can’t put all their eggs in one basket and just look to technology as a fix: “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”(2).

And how would a smaller employer even go about navigating this new minefield to sponsor a skilled worker in the first place? Yes, we are all learning more about what the workplace and employment law will look like from January 2021, but I do agree with the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, Adam Marshall, that the process would have to be ‘radically simplified if smaller businesses were to navigate the system’ (2).

Priti Patel also argues that ‘20% of available people of working age were currently economically inactive and could be encouraged to look for work’ (2). The common excuse for this is that there aren’t enough jobs, but what is often meant by this is that there aren’t enough ‘attractive’ jobs. There are significant workforce shortages for seemingly ‘less attractive’ roles such as produce harvesting, care support and cleaning services. If the Government plans to abandon visas for low-skilled overseas workers, I hope they have a plan to fill these vital, yet apparently ‘less attractive’ roles or the economy will suffer.

Whether you’re a large employer or a small independent business, here are my top three things to think about:

  • Headcount and succession planning – I know I bang on about this a lot, but fail to prepare and prepare to fail. Look at the make-up of your workforce – do you employ a large number of EU or non-EU workers? Are there certain functions which have a higher proportion of EU or non-EU workers? Are they skilled or low-skilled? How would you usually recruit a replacement when your workers move on, and what does this look like in the new world? Invest in the thinking now, start building your strategy and start communicating with your workforce.
  • Talent pools – similar to the above, but how will these changes impact the talent pool available to you? Does it make certain employees ‘less affordable’? Assess the impact of this on your workforce long-term. Is there an option to make plans now to adapt and reduce the impact or widen your talent pools through other routes i.e. appealing to UK workers etc.
  • Policy changes – Make sure you keep abreast of any policy changes if sponsoring overseas workers or if you intend to do so in the future. Keep in mind the changes to salary thresholds and consider the impact this may have on your business if looking to recruit skilled workers.

(1) Sky News: Low-skilled workers to be denied visas under immigration shake-up 
(2) Personnel Today: Points-based immigration scheme shuts out low-skilled workers