Policy paper Future skills-based immigration system: executive summary Updated 19 December 2018

Overview

As the UK leaves the European Union (EU) and we bring free movement to an end, different rules to the current ones must apply to migration here by EU citizens. We will take full control of migration by bringing all of it under UK law and institute a new border and immigration system, to serve the UK public and the economy, and to enable those who come to the UK to integrate and make a positive contribution. Everyone will be required to obtain a permission if they want to come to the UK and to work or study here.

This does not mean there will be no immigration – as we take full control, we will continue to welcome law-abiding people from around the world who help make the UK a diverse society and dynamic economy. But the end of free movement gives us an opportunity to reset the conversation on migration.

Our future system will work for the whole of the UK – for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all parts of England. The UK Government will work with the Devolved Administrations to understand their unique perspectives and challenges and to ensure that employers have the flexibility they need to deploy staff and that individuals are able to visit, live and work in all parts of the UK.

The UK’s future border and immigration system will have the same core objectives as now. From an immigration perspective, it must create strong borders, protect the vulnerable, enforce the rules and control the numbers and type of people coming to live and work here, in line with the continued commitment to reduce annual net migration to sustainable levels as set out in the Conservative Party manifesto, rather than the hundreds of thousands we have consistently seen over the last two decades. From an economic perspective, it must support an open, global economy in line with the UK’s Industrial Strategy which aims for a highly skilled, innovative and highly productive workforce. However, there will be a key difference from now. There will no longer be one immigration system for non-Europeans, and another for EU citizens1. The future system will apply in the same way to all nationalities – EU and non-EU citizens alike – except where there are objective grounds to differentiate. This could, for example, be in the context of a trade agreement, or on the basis of risk.

Following the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), we will prioritise skilled migrants. A skilled-based migration policy will ensure the UK remains a hub for international talent from the EU and the rest of the world, which attracts people to work in our vibrant and diverse communities in jobs that drive up productivity and wages, and deliver essential services.

We will also take this opportunity to transform our operational systems and processes, using the latest digital technology to streamline and improve our service to individuals and employers, and better protect against fraud and abuse.

The new system will not come into play immediately after we leave the EU. It will take time to design and implement. We will do this in a phased way, between now and the end of the Implementation Period, with further reforms to follow.

We need to put in place the necessary legislative and operational provisions and ensure stakeholders across the UK are ready.

The new system will start to operate from the end of Implementation Period. In the meantime, we will implement the EU Settlement Scheme which will give EU citizens protected by the Withdrawal Agreement security as to their future status. Irish citizens will not need to apply under the future system, to settle as their current rights to live and work in the UK, which pre-date EU free movement, will be preserved and the Common Travel Area will continue to function as now.

Position of EU citizens already in the UK

During the Implementation Period, we will implement the EU Settlement Scheme. This gives EU citizens already here, and also those who arrive in the UK during the Implementation Period, the opportunity to secure their future residence in the UK. The UK has agreed with the EU on rights for EU citizens already living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU, to enable them to carry on with their lives broadly as now. The Government is finalising arrangements with negotiating with European Free Trade Association (EFTA) States – Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland – to bring about similar arrangements for their citizens.

The UK has already begun to implement the EU Settlement Scheme through a phased approach, starting with EU employees working in the NHS, social care and higher education sectors. It will be opened to all eligible EU and EFTA citizens by the date of the UK’s departure from the EU. Subject to ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU Settlement Scheme will be open until six months after the end of the Implementation Period.

The EU Settlement Scheme establishes the principle that EU citizens must obtain a specific, individual permission to stay on in the UK after the end of the Implementation Period, in contrast to the position under EU free movement whereby rights are bestowed by EU treaties.

The EU Settlement Scheme will be easy for EU citizens, and their third country family members, to access. It has been designed to be fully digital from the point of application. Dedicated links between the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs, and the Department for Work and Pensions have been created to enable quick searches of employment records, thereby providing a customer friendly system that, generally, avoids the applicant having to provide documentary evidence of their residence footprint.

EU citizens’ immigration status will be recorded digitally in a database avoiding the use of cards, as is now the case with the driving licence counterpart, ensuring the individual can have immediate access to information about their current status and enabling them to share it easily with employers and other service providers.

Summary of our agreement on EU citizens’ rights (and their family members) for those living lawfully in the UK before the end of the Implementation Period:

  • EU citizens who have been living in the UK continuously for five years will be eligible for settled status in UK law.
  • EU citizens who arrived before the end of the Implementation Period, but who have not been here for five years, will be eligible for pre-settled status, enabling them to stay until they have accumulated five years, after which they may apply for settled status
  • the Withdrawal Agreement will also allow close family members who live in a different country to join an EU citizen at any time in the future under current rules, if the relationship existed before the end of the Implementation Period
  • EU citizens protected by the agreement will continue to be able to work, study and establish a business in the UK as now
  • EU citizens with settled status or pre-settled status to stay may access healthcare, pensions and other benefits and services in the UK, as they do currently
  • frontier workers (EU citizens who reside in one state, and work in the UK) will continue to be able to enter the UK to work under current rules, if they started this work before the end of the Implementation Period

Common Travel Area (CTA) and rights of Irish nationals

The Government has made clear that the CTA and associated rights between the UK, Ireland and the Crown Dependencies will be unaffected by the UK’s exit. Irish and British citizens will continue to enjoy the freedom to travel within the CTA without the need for immigration controls or residence/work permits. Irish citizens do not need to obtain settled status in the UK.

What happens next?

The UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019. There will be an Implementation Period, planned to run until 31 December 2020, during which current rules will continue to apply. During that time, EU citizens will be able to enter and reside under the terms of the UK Regulations which implement the current, pre-Exit rules.

EU citizens and their family members who wish to remain in the UK after the end of the Implementation Period must apply for the EU Settlement Scheme. They have until June 2021 to do so, if the Implementation Period ends on 31 December 2020.

This White Paper outlines proposals for the future border and immigration system, which will follow the Implementation Period. The Government will introduce the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill to end free movement, protect the status of Irish citizens once free movement ends and amend the existing arrangements around the availability of benefit support for EU citizens entering the UK. The future immigration arrangements for EU citizens and their family members will be set out in UK Immigration Rules as is the case now for non-EU nationals. The proposed visa routes will be opened in autumn 2020, to enable those who wish to come to the UK to apply in good time.

The government has been engaging with businesses from a wide range of sectors and across the UK to hear their priorities, concerns and ideas about the future system. We are determined to ensure that the future system is efficient and able to respond to users’ needs.

We will continue to engage with a wide range of stakeholders across the whole of the UK. Only following a year of extensive engagement do we intend to publish the Immigration Rules setting out the detail of the future system, providing time and certainty for businesses to adjust before the future system is introduced.

Summary of proposals

1. After the UK’s exit and following the Implementation Period, we will end the current free movement system imposed by the EU so that the UK Immigration Rules will apply to EU and non-EU migrants alike in a single skills-based system, as opposed to being based on where an individual comes from, where anyone who wants to come to the UK will need permission to do so, as opposed to being based on where an individual comes from.

2. The rules will nonetheless be flexible and provide for different treatment for certain migrants, in ways justified on objective grounds such as skill, immigration and security risk, and international or bilateral agreements. This principle already exists in the current non-EU system, where certain low-risk nationalities are non-visa nationals, or have different evidential requirements, and we give effect to existing bilateral agreements.
Mobility

3. We have agreed in the Future Framework declaration with the EU that we will discuss with them provisions relating to mobility. For example, we have said that the UK and EU should aim not to impose a visa requirement for short-term visits; that citizens should not face routine intentions testing at the border; that we negotiate commitments in respect of the provision of services through the temporary entry and stay of natural persons (e.g. lawyers); that we will explore the arrangements applying to research, study, training and youth exchanges; that we will look at the coordination of social security arrangements; and we will explore how to facilitate the crossing of borders for legitimate travel purposes, consistent with national laws.

4. The UK has existing youth mobility arrangements with certain countries and we will be looking to expand these.

5. We are also willing to expand, on a reciprocal basis, our current range of “GATS Mode 4” commitments which we have taken as part of EU trade deals2. These commitments may cover independent professionals, contractual service suppliers, intra company transfers and business visitors.

6. Any agreements we eventually reach with the EU relating to mobility will be fully compatible and incorporated into our future system. We would look to offer similar arrangements to other low-risk countries with which we agree deep trade agreements in future.

Strengthening border security and improving journey crossings for legitimate passengers

7. Since 2010, we have pursued an ambitious programme of reform at the border to keep the UK safe, working with law enforcement organisations and international partners to secure our borders from a range of threats, including modern slavery and human trafficking; terrorism; and activities of organised criminal groups.

8. We have also invested in modern technology, like e-Passport gates (e-gates) and motion detection technology, to improve security and prevent illegal entry.

9. We will continue to safeguard and tighten border security to protect the public through:

  • applying stricter UK criminality thresholds on refusal of entry and removals to EU citizens entering the UK
  • introducing an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) as part of a universal ‘permission to travel’ requirement to strengthen our ability to prevent the arrival of those who present a threat to our borders
  • ensuring travel documents used for entry to the UK are secure and meet our required standards
  • ensuring that biometrics are captured from those wishing to live and work in the UK
  • continuing to work closely with colleagues in France, Belgium and the Netherlands on border management and the operation of the juxtaposed controls, and with Ireland and the Crown Dependencies on the operation of the Common Travel Area; and
  • working with the EU, Turkey and other countries to tackle illegal migration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East.

10. Applying different processes based on risk will create opportunities to focus our efforts on those who seek to abuse or exploit the system and offer a quicker entry process for the majority of legitimate passengers, such as by expanding access to e-gates for specified low-risk nationalities, for example Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the United States of America, Singapore and South Korea.

Visitors

11. We do not intend to require visitors who are citizens of current EU Member States to obtain a visit visa in advance of travel and we intend to allow them to continue to use e-gates to make entry quick and easy. We propose to make binding commitments to this effect in a future mobility partnership, if the EU reciprocates.

12. Tourists will continue to enjoy a generous entitlement to spend up to six months in the UK. Visitors coming to the UK for short-term business reasons will be able, as now, to carry out a wide range of activities, including permitted paid engagements. We will discuss with stakeholders whether these arrangements can be improved to reflect business need.

An individual immigration status as the basis of control

13. Under the future system following the Implementation Period, those coming to the UK, including EU citizens, who intend to work or study or join family will need permission to do so, normally in the form of an electronic status which must be obtained before coming to the UK. This means everyone coming the UK will have an individual immigration status which will form the basis of our immigration controls. This status will be communicated to airlines to confirm whether an individual has permission to travel, checked at the UK border (by either a Border Force officer or an e-gate), and then form the basis of in-country immigration checks.

14. Our new digital checking service – already being piloted for non-EU nationals – makes it easier for employers, landlords and public service providers to confirm an individual’s rights and eligibility, based on their immigration status. This is simpler, more secure and more up-to-date than checking a variety of documentation.

15. As part of our new, end-to-end system, the individual immigration status will be compared with exit checks data monitoring departures from the UK, allowing an individual’s date of exit to be recorded and, if it exceeds the duration of their permitted stay, that can be taken into account when they next apply to travel to the UK. This will help inform the appropriate enforcement action to take against those who flout immigration laws and rules and refuse to comply.

Workers

16. At present, we have a dual system of admitting only highly skilled workers from outside the EU, and workers of all skill levels from the EU. We will replace this with a single route which gives access to highly skilled and skilled workers from all countries. Those coming to the UK on this route will need an employer to sponsor them. We propose to allow individuals who meet the requirements to bring dependants, extend their stay and switch to other routes, and in some cases, settle permanently.

17. The current system for non-EU work migration imposes controls through minimum skills and salary levels, a cap on numbers and the need to test the availability of local workers before recruiting abroad. The proposed new route will include a number of significant reforms aimed at ensuring that our immigration system supports a flexible labour market, and that overall the burden on businesses is no greater under a single system which includes EU migrants.

18. As recommended by the MAC, we will not impose a cap on the numbers of skilled workers, to ensure the brightest and best who wish to come to the UK may do so, and employers have access to the skills that add most value to the UK economy.

19. Employers should not be using migrant labour to put downward pressure on wages where there is a ready supply of labour. However, the MAC found that the resident labour market test does not offer such a protection, instead serving in practice as a delay in the process, while protection is provided by payment of the Immigration Skills Charge (ISC) by employers. In line with their recommendation we will therefore no longer require employers of skilled migrants to carry out a resident labour market test as a condition of sponsoring a worker.

20. The new system will need to be accessible to the large number of businesses, particularly smaller enterprises, that have previously been able to hire migrant labour from the EU, without needing to engage with the existing sponsorship requirements. Therefore, we will need to make the system as straightforward and light touch as possible, and low cost to employers.

21. We will review the administrative burdens on employer sponsors to ensure that they are proportionate to the objective of minimising immigration abuse. Our aim is to keep reporting requirements and upfront costs for employers to an absolute minimum. This will be facilitated in part through greater sharing of employment, benefits and immigration records between the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions. To maintain the UK’s competitive edge in attracting international talent, we are committed to minimising the time it takes to hire a skilled migrant and aim to process the great majority of work visas within two to three weeks.

22. To support labour market flexibility, we propose that nationals of the lowest risk countries will be able to apply for a work visa in the UK. Therefore, these individuals will not be required to leave the UK and make return journeys to make their applications. This will strike an appropriate balance between providing the flexibility that businesses need, while also protecting against abuse.

23. The new skilled route will include workers with intermediate level skills, at RQF 3-5 level (A level or equivalent) as well as graduate and post-graduate, as the MAC recommended. The MAC recommended retaining the minimum salary threshold at £30,000 and we will engage businesses and employers as to what salary threshold should be set. We have asked the MAC to review the Shortage Occupation List (SOL), including for occupations at RQF levels 3-5. They will report in spring 2019. Scotland already has a separate SOL and we will also invite the MAC to compile a such a list for Northern Ireland and consider whether the composition of the SOL needs to be different for Wales.

24. The MAC did not recommend a route specifically for low skilled workers and we intend to accept that recommendation.

25. Employers have to some extent become reliant on lower skilled workers from the EU for certain jobs. Leaving the EU provides an opportunity to drive business change and ensure that UK companies are at the forefront of innovation going forward.

26. However, we recognise the challenges faced by these employers, particularly in sectors like construction and social care, who would find it difficult immediately to adapt. We propose, as a transitional measure, also to institute a time-limited route for temporary short-term workers. This route will allow people to come for a maximum of 12 months, with a cooling-off period of a further 12 months to prevent people effectively working in the UK permanently. We will engage extensively with business and stakeholders as part of the engagement process on the duration and cooling off periods.

27. We are also committed to working with key sectors to help facilitate the change needed to reduce demand for low skilled migrant labour.

28. This route will enable workers of all skill levels to move between employers (with no specific sponsorship requirement). This will offer flexibility to employers as they implement changes, by reducing compliance costs and widening the range of skills available.

29. Crucially, the visa will be time limited to twelve months and will not carry entitlements to access public funds or rights to extend a stay, switch to other routes, bring dependants or lead to permanent settlement.

30. This route will only be open to nationals of specified countries, for example, low risk countries with which the UK negotiates migration commitments and mobility proposals. As with other routes, all applicants would pay a fee – which may, in this instance, rise over time, reflecting the transitory nature of this scheme – and be subject to criminal record checks.

31. This will be a transitional arrangement. It will be kept under review to ensure that it is meeting the needs of the UK economy and we reserve the right to tighten the criteria or impose numerical caps if necessary. We would also retain the ability to close the route if the economic conditions in the UK warrant that. There will then be a full review for 2025 in which we will work with the MAC, as well as representatives of business and local communities to consider whether there should be any continuing facility for short-term workers to come to the UK, but any future arrangements may be more limited than the transitional route.

32. In accordance with the MAC’s advice, we do not intend to open sectoral labour schemes, except potentially for seasonal agricultural work. We will be running a small-scale pilot scheme for agricultural workers in 2019.

Students

33. International students enhance our educational institutions both financially and culturally; they enrich the experience of domestic students; and they become important ambassadors for the United Kingdom in later life.

34. We will continue to welcome and encourage international students and place no limit on their numbers. Students will generally need to obtain permission before they travel to the UK, with the exception of non-visa nationals who can be granted entry as a short-term student for a course up to six months without permission to travel – as is currently the case. In future, once introduced, non-visa national short-term students will require an Electronic Travel Authorisation to enter the UK.

35. Following the recent MAC report on students, we intend to improve the current offer to those who have completed a degree who want to stay on in the UK to work after they have completed their studies, by offering six months’ post-study leave to all master’s students, and bachelor’s students studying at an institution with degree awarding powers – giving them more time to find permanent skilled work and to work temporarily during that period. Those who have completed a PhD will have a year.

36. We will also allow for students studying at bachelor’s level or above to be able to apply to switch into the skilled workers route up to three months before the end of their course in the UK, and from outside of the UK for two years after their graduation.

37. We do not propose to lower standards in the study route, which is working well after the reforms which stopped the unacceptably high levels of immigration abuse encountered a decade ago by non-genuine students. Individuals must demonstrate that they are genuine student, meet English language and maintenance requirements and have a proven academic track record.

38. We will maintain rules that to undertake further study a student must demonstrate academic progress. It must be a route to allow access to our world leading institutions, nor a back-door route to work or settlement.

Family and Settlement

39. We do not intend to change significantly the rules for family migration and permanent settlement, which are designed to promote integration by ensuring migrants are financially independent, can speak English and understand British values. As we will set out in the forthcoming Integrated Communities Action Plan, we are committed to refreshing the Life in the UK test to reflect better modern British values, as well as strengthening the language requirements for those seeking to become British citizens.

Protecting the vulnerable

40. Britain has a long history of welcoming those forced to flee persecution and we remain committed to the Refugee Convention. We subscribe to the principles of the EU Dublin Regulation to ensure those in need of protection claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and to facilitate the reunion of family groups, so their asylum claim can be considered together. We intend to seek an agreement on this with the EU or with individual Member States.

41. We will continue to provide support and protection to refugees under our existing resettlement schemes, including the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme, the largest resettlement effort aimed specifically at children at risk from the Middle East and North Africa region. We will continue to consider future resettlement policies and intend to set out our future position shortly.

42. We continue to recognise the importance of family unity and we intend to seek an agreement with the EU under which unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the EU can join close family members in the UK. Any agreement will be reciprocal.

43. We are also working to ensure the immigration system, both today and in the future, is humane, in particular in its treatment of vulnerable people. Work in progress includes:

  • Windrush Lessons Learned Review, with independent oversight and external challenge; and
  • immigration detention reforms to continue to improve the protection we afford to vulnerable people

Compliance

44. Exit check data is showing high levels of compliance with immigration requirements – approximately 97 per cent – amongst the cohorts on which we have data. It is vital for the integrity of the future system, fairness to all migrants, and reassurance for the UK public that the UK laws and rules are enforced.

45. We are committed to a fair and humane immigration policy which welcomes people here legally. It is right that we, for example, require right to work and rent checks and can deny access to or opening of current accounts to tackle illegal immigration and prevent abuse of benefits and services, but it is essential that we improve our ability to differentiate between the lawful and unlawful populations.

46. This includes ensuring that those who are not legitimately in the UK and those only here as visitors aren’t accessing public benefits and services or competing for jobs and housing with British citizens and migrants who have played by the rules.

47. We will support employers and other service providers to carry out their obligations to check immigration status to establish right to work, and entitlement to access benefits, medical treatment and other services, ensuring lessons are learned in the light of Windrush. When we move to the future system, we will not require employers to undertake retrospective right to work checks on existing EU employers.

48. In April this year, the Home Office launched a new online checking service, enabling UK employers to confirm whether a non-EEA national holding either a biometric residence permit or biometric residence card has a current right to work in the UK and whether they are subject to any restrictions. From the end of January 2019, employers will be able to request either the online check or the existing document-based check; online checks will be a voluntary option whilst migrants and employers develop familiarity with the new service. The digital status checking services we are continuing to develop will provide a quick and secure verification of status.

Funding the system

49. The Border, Immigration and Citizenship System currently costs £2.8 billion a year to run – including asylum and enforcement costs – and we raise £2.3 billion a year in visa and passport fees. Income generation through fees and charges will continue to underpin our future system, contributing significantly towards funding.

50. It is important that the border and immigration system is resourced to fulfil its wide range of duties, from security to facilitating trade and travel to compliance and enforcement to protecting the vulnerable.

51. We will continue to provide value for money for the taxpayer and citizens. It is right that the cost of administering the border and immigration system should be borne by those who use it, to avoid placing undue burden on general taxation, as Parliament has agreed. The Government will follow this principle in setting fee levels in future. However, we will continue to review the level of fees.

52. In addition to fees, certain migrants or their employers pay an Immigration Skills Charge and the Immigration Health Surcharge. Since the Health Surcharge was introduced in 2015 it has raised approximately £600 million for the National Health Service.

53. Funds generated from the Skills Charge are helping to maintain the Department for Education’s existing skills budget and existing level of investment in skills in England. This ensures that we can continue to take a long-term view of investment in developing the skills the UK needs and in addressing skills gaps in the workforce.

54. Similarly, the Skills Charge, which is under review, is helping to maintain funding levels for each of the Devolved Administrations. Information on income received from the Skills Charge payments will be published in due course.

55. Alongside this, to ensure excellent service at the border whilst continuing to both deal with the growth in passenger numbers and increasing passenger expectations, as well as maintaining security, the Government will consider whether there are additional or alternative funding mechanisms. As part of this we will be looking to build a new relationship between government and industry, creating the environment for encouraging greater innovation and technological solutions that benefit the passenger and the UK.

Customer focused

56. We will put the customer at the heart of our design to ensure user-friendly, simple and transparent processes.

57. We are determined to ensure that the future system is efficient, flexible and responds to users’ needs and are clear that the Government cannot design and deliver this new system in isolation.

58. As recommended by the MAC, we will ensure that users of the immigration system are given regular opportunities to express their opinions on the system and how it works. We are committed to building a system which evolves and adapts to meet the needs of those using it.

Balancing the impact on the UK economy

59. The economic impact of these proposals is explored in the Economic Appraisal (Annex B), which sets out the potential impacts of the proposed future system changes and quantifies these, where possible. It estimates these changes for skilled workers could result in an 80 per cent reduction in inflows of long-term workers from the EU and the European Economic Area.

  1. In most cases, references throughout this White Paper to citizens of the European Union also relate to citizens of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. 
  2. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is a treaty of the World Trade Organisation. It covers four modes of cross-border supply of services. Mode 4 relates to the supply of a service by one Member, through presence of natural persons of a Member in the territory of another Member. The GATS does not apply to measures affecting access to the employment market of a Member, nor does it apply to measures regarding citizenship, residence or employment on a permanent basis.
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