It has taken two home secretaries, nearly 18 months and several fraught arguments in Cabinet — but Britain’s government has finally published its blueprint for the post-Brexit immigration system.
The new regime represents the biggest shake-up of border controls in four decades, ending the priority the UK gives to EU migrants over people from the US and Asia. It raises the prospect of visa policies determined by bilateral trade deals, rather than membership of the bloc.
The white paper also attempts to satisfy Brexit supporters’ call for immigration controls — a huge issue since the 2016 EU referendum — while acknowledging businesses’ recruitment difficulties at a time when employment is at record levels. Some European nationals already appear to be leaving the UK.
Sajid Javid, home secretary, says the proposals in the white paper allow “employers to have access to the skills they need from around the world, while ensuring net migration is reduced to sustainable levels”.
Whether he is successful in striking that balance will only become clear when the system is in operation, at least two years from now.
What does the white paper propose?
The document sets out a new immigration regime that puts EU migrants on the same footing as those from further afield. The government expects it to take effect after the end of a transition period agreed in Mrs May’s Brexit deal, which would maintain freedom of movement to and from the EU until December 2020, although the transition could be extended until December 2022.
Under the white paper’s proposals, anyone who is not a British or Irish citizen will need some form of prior permission from the Home Office to visit, live, work or study in the UK. This means:
- An online document for tourists and business visitors for up to six months, along the lines of the US’s ESTA form for citizens of countries with visa waiver schemes. However the white paper suggests this requirement could be dropped depending on the outcome of negotiations with the EU.
- An extension of the current high-skilled visa for non-EU nationals to cover EU migrants. Applicants must have a firm offer and a sponsoring employer but the Home Office has promised far simpler bureaucracy and a two-to-three week turnround on visa applications. Plans to impose a controversial £30,000 minimum salary requirement on such visas will be put out to public consultation and be subject to some exemptions such as graduate jobs
- A new temporary “transitional” visa for workers of all skill levels from EU and “low-risk” non-EU countries, who will be able to enter the UK without a job offer. Visa recipients will be able to stay for up to 12 months, then have to leave for at least a year before re-applying. The scheme will remain in place until 2025 at the earliest.
- Graduate students will be allowed six months to find work in the UK after they finish their studies, while PhD students will be given a year to secure employment.
- The youth mobility visa — which allows 18- to 30-year-olds to live and work in the UK for up to two years — will be extended to cover EU nationals.
Is the transitional visa just a cumbersome form of free movement?
Not exactly. Anyone coming into the UK this way will need to secure a visa in advance, rather than just turning up at the border. They will not have access to state benefits or be able to bring family members. Nor will they be allowed to switch to other visas or use the transitional visa as a route to permanent settlement. The visa is a time-limited scheme, so it could be shut down after a 2025 review if officials decide it has served its purpose.
The vital question is how the Home Office will assess applications and make decisions about how many such visas to issue.
Businesses say that the visa scheme may be better than a “cliff-edge” that could impede the entry of low-skilled workers after the end of the transition period in Mrs May’s deal.
But companies also warn the new visa will not help long-term planning or stability. Employers such as construction companies and tech start-ups will have to rehire lower-paid overseas workers every 12 months.
Will these proposals tighten migration policy?
Yes and no. As the Institute of Directors commented, “the white paper gives with one hand and takes away with the other”. The old free movement system is ending. But proposals to remove the annual cap on high-skilled work visas and to lower qualification requirements for high-skilled applicants will make it easier for employers to recruit from overseas.
The abolition of the resident labour market test, which obliges businesses to advertise locally before hiring from abroad, will also ease companies’ recruitment worries.
Overall, the Home Office is working on the understanding that, for the duration of the transitional visa scheme, “similar numbers” of EU migrants will come to the UK as at present. In the year to June 2018, 74,000 EU nationals came to Britain for 12 months or more.
An impact assessment in the document suggests a much more dramatic fall of 80 per cent in the number of EU arrivals in the first five years of the policy. But this is based on limiting “high skilled” visas to people earning at least £30,000 a year — a contentious threshold that has been put out to consultation and is subject to several exemptions.
New impact assessments will be needed when the final policy has been decided in a year’s time.
What happens under a no-deal scenario?
The white paper does not contain any explicit reference to leaving the EU without an exit agreement, and the Home Office has only said it will publish a separate set of no-deal contingencies “in due course” — most likely in the new year.
However, officials have stressed that if the UK failed to finalise Mrs May’s deal with the EU by the scheduled date of Brexit on 29 March, it would not immediately end free movement, since the new immigration regime would not yet be in place.
Instead, there would be an interim period of continued free movement and a grace period for EU nationals currently living in the UK to apply for settled status while new border controls are phased in.
Get alerts on UK immigration when a new story is published