Is the panacea in the points?

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The Brexit debacle has thrown up many questions for the UK economy, but no more so than the country’s approach to skilled and unskilled migration. Simon Walsh, Partner, Oury Clark Solicitors reflects on the facets of Australia’s immigration points system as a selection process to fill the skills shortage

With unemployment at an all-time low of 3.8 per cent and vacancies running to the 100,000+ mark in the NHS alone, what is crystal clear is that the country’s immigration system needs an overhaul as it is not fit for purpose. The Tory Party is totally Machiavellian with regards to its immigration policy: on one hand it says that the UK is “open for business” while on the other hand is takes away the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa almost overnight and replaces it with the Tier 1 Investor visa, which is still not fulling operational, meaning that as a country, we’ve likely lost some valuable tech talent to the likes of Canada, the US and Australia.

Boris Johnson talks enthusiastically of Australia’s points-based immigration system and has stated that if he’s successful in his premiership bid, he’ll commission the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to look at the Australian points-based system and report by the end of the year on whether it could be adopted as part of a future immigration policy.

In Australia the visa that Mr Johnson refers to is simply known as a “189” visa. This visa requires an applicant to do the following:

• have at least 65 points (from a table where age, English language skill, skilled employment experience and educational qualifications amongst other things are awarded points)
• lodge an Expression of Interest (EoI) and wait in the pool of candidates;
• if successful, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs will invite the individual to apply for the visa;
• and then the individual applies for a permanent residence visa; and
• when they arrive in Australia they are immediately eligible to look for work.

The higher the points, the more chance you have of being selected. This has been likened to a green-card lottery, but based on points for various factors and with this knowledge it is hard to comprehend how such a system “democratises” immigration.

The points system clearly favours skilled migrants over unskilled migrants but the economy needs both skilled and unskilled migrants. Some cynics have actually stated that it’s an easy way to rule out a number of non-English speaking nationalities in a polite manner – by claiming the system is merit based! It’s also hard to see any real difference with the current Tier 2 General system for skilled workers, with the added benefit under the Tier 2 General system that a migrant worker actually has to have a job to come to.

If you dig around the press in Australia, you will also find that the “189” visa isn’t a panacea as many skilled migrants actually fail to find work (think petroleum engineers having to work at mucking out stables). The reason for this is that individuals who are granted these visas have rarely ever been properly tested in the Australian labour market (if they had been then they may actually have been able to find an employer to sponsor them for a visa) and secondly, Australia (like the UK) has a serious skills shortage in the lower skilled roles (front line aged care and disability workers, truck drivers, child carers, sales assistants etc.) and people who would likely fill these roles don’t generally get a look in under the “189” visa.

Hopefully, if the MAC is commissioned to look more closely at this system, it will recommend something that adequately addresses the requirements for skilled labour and the requirements for unskilled labour, as they are distinctly different, but essential for the proper functioning of our job market and economy.

From an employer’s perspective, most UK business that continue to suffer skills shortages amongst highly skilled migrants are working within the parameters of the Tier 2 General system although the current system is costly for small businesses and is overly burdensome from an administration perspective when it comes to being able to demonstrate to the Home Office that there are no suitable settled workers to do the jobs that employers are seeking to fill.

To the question of whether the current immigration system acts as a deterrent to businesses setting up in the UK, definitely is the answer as the withdrawal of Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa has pushed the UK down the list of “welcoming” countries. Whatever side of the Brexit debate you sit, there’s no getting over the fact, the UK has a serious shortage of skilled and unskilled labour and we have to accept the fact that there are many unskilled jobs that many English people will simply not do, but someone has to do them!