This blog examines Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposals for a new Australian-style points-based immigration system, and its implications for regional differentiation for Scotland. It is one of several blogs that Dr Eve Hepburn has been publishing with SPICe. As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or the Scottish Parliament.
A new Australian-style immigration system?
In June 2019, in his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson declared his intention to introduce an Australia-style points-based system in the UK. His plan was to “ensure that we continue to attract the brightest and best talent from around the world” through a “radical rewriting of our immigration system.”
The PM said he would invite the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review Australia’s immigration programmes and on 3 September 2019, Home Secretary Priti Patel instructed the MAC to examine “Australian immigration system and similar systems to advise on what best practice can be used to strengthen the UK labour market.” She asked the MAC to report by January 2020.
Although UK Government officials have (to date) not made any public statements about when and how a new immigration system for the UK will be introduced, a Policy Paper on No-Deal immigration on the UK Government website (updated on 5 September) says,
“The government will introduce a new, Australian-style points-based immigration system from January 2021.”
This is a relatively short timescale to develop, consult on, and create a new immigration system. Furthermore, the new UK Government’s plans appear to depart from former Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposals.
Theresa May’s post-Brexit immigration policy
In December 2018, the UK Government published a White Paper on Immigration and introduced legislation to end free movement in the UK. The Immigration Bill, introduced by the former Home Secretary (and now Chancellor) Sajid Javid, stalled after its second reading in the House of Commons earlier this year, and was due to fall away with the attempted prorogation of Parliament. However, given that the Supreme Court has recalled Parliament, the immigration bill is likely to now continue its passage through Parliament.
Former PM Theresa May’s White Paper drew heavily on a substantial report by the MAC, whose recommendations to reform the UK’s immigration system after Brexit included:
- Ending free movement from the EU/EFTA and requiring future migrants from the EU/EFTA to apply through the UK’s points-based system.
- Abolishing the cap on skilled workers coming through the ‘Tier 2’ route.
- Creating a new route for skilled migration, with a £30,000 per year salary threshold.
The White paper received mixed responses. While business organisations welcomed removing the cap on skilled workers, there were concerns about the lack of routes for low-skilled migration to the UK and the challenges for businesses to retain and recruit EEA nationals in future. The immigration proposals, and responses to them by Scottish organisations, were scrutinised in a SPICe briefing in January 2019.
What do we know of the new UK Government’s plans?
The UK government has published few details about its post-Brexit immigration proposals. We know that the Government seeks to create an Australian-style points-based system, however, it is unclear whether the Government’s preference is to create a less-restrictive immigration system – in line with the PM’s intention to create an amnesty for undocumented migrants and potentially remove the annual limit on immigration, or a more restrictive system – given the PM’s reference to being “tougher on those who abuse our system.”
How does the Australian immigration system work?
Australia currently operates a points-based immigration scheme, which prioritises and selects economic migrants based on certain desirable characteristics – such as their occupation, work experience, age, language ability and educational qualifications.
Applicants are allocated a certain number of points for each of these characteristics, and those who are ranked highly are invited to apply for one of the work visas that Australia offers. Through this system, people who do not have a job offer may be allowed to enter the country if they have sufficient points. Furthermore, while there has been a recent growth in temporary work visas, many skilled workers receive permanent residence.
There is also a suite of ‘State Specific and Regional Migration’ (SSRM) visa categories, which enable State and Territory governments (sub-state regional administrations that have broadly the same powers as devolved administrations in the UK) to set quotas and criteria for selecting migrants, especially if they qualify as low-population growth.
Australia’s immigration system, with regard to economic and family migration, is often described as ‘liberal’, in that it has sought to use the points-based system to relax skilled immigration controls to meet labour market demands. Furthermore, Australia has consistently ranked as one of the top three refugee resettlement countries in the world. At the same time, Australia has a policy of restricting the number of undocumented asylum-seekers arriving by boat from Indonesia, by detaining people in offshore detention centres.
What does this mean for Scotland?
A report commissioned by the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee found that the Australian immigration model could provide best practice for Scotland and other UK regions to influence immigration flows and retention.
The report describes the Australian system’s regional dispersal mechanism:
“States and Territories can attract skilled and business migrants through their participation in a regional migration visa scheme [to] exercise administrative powers to determine their own sponsorship programmes, set their own criteria and thresholds to select immigrants to ensure a skilled intake, and formulate reception and integration programmes to encourage immigrant retention.”
Obtaining greater influence over immigration flows to Scotland is something that the Scottish Government – as well as universities, businesses and civil society actors – have argued for over the last few years, in order to combat demographic decline and labour market gaps.
Arguments in favour of the regionalised nature of Australia’s immigration system – which seeks to distribute the population of Australia more evenly across the territory – have been made across the UK. In addition to Scotland, organisations in the North East of England and London have also argued for regional visas to meet regional needs.
However, while Australia’s liberal skilled migrant visa programmes and regional dispersal mechanism may appear attractive, the question of whether an Australian-style system in the UK would meet their needs depends on which aspects of the Australian system the Government wishes to adopt.
Thus far, the UK Government has made no mention of adopting the Australian regional visa programmes. Instead, the focus has been on a ‘single’ skilled migration system (referring to the removal of the free movement system). Furthermore, as Madelaine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, says,
“it is not possible to say whether or how much introducing an ‘Australian-style points system’ to the UK would increase migration, without knowing how this system would be designed.”
Until the UK Government publishes more details on how it plans to use a points-based system – which could be calibrated in a way to restrict the number of migrants coming to the UK (with higher points thresholds) or, like Australia, to increase skilled migration – we will not fully know the implications of such a system for Scotland, or the UK as a whole.
Much of the substance of the proposed system will likely hinge on the report that the MAC is due to publish in January 2020. The MAC launched a call for evidence on 10 September for organisations to feed into this Consultation. Those who wish to have a say on whether, and how the UK might adopt a new points-based system, can respond to the Consultation here.
Dr Eve Hepburn, SPICe Academic Fellow