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28 January 2020updated 24 Jul 2021 4:06am

Why an Australian-style points system for immigration would cost Brexit Britain

The Migration Advisory Committee has warned salary and skills thresholds for EU migrants will be more harmful to the economy than free movement.

By Anoosh Chakelian

An independent committee on migration policy has advised against the government’s plans for a full “Australian-style points-based system” after Brexit. Although ministers won’t be obliged to follow its recommendations, the report offers us a hint of what the immigration system could look like once the freedom of movement for EU migrants is ended.

The Migration Advisory Committee suggests a points-based system – which ranks potential incomers on certain criteria (such as English language ability, qualifications, age, professional experience, etc) – should be applied only to “highly skilled migrants” who don’t have prior job offers.

For everyone else, it recommends lowering the minimum salary threshold from £30,000 (which is currently how much most non-EU migrants who want to enter the UK must earn from their prospective job) to £25,600. This is in order to help recruit lower-paid but in-demand workers for understaffed sectors, like teaching and the health service.

The UK would suffer the largest impacts in sectors that “primarily employ lower-skilled workers”, because these “would not be eligible under the proposed restriction to medium-skilled and higher-skilled workers”. It suggests the government supplies special visas or specific schemes for different sectors to make sure these industries aren’t stranded without a labour force – but this would be “at the cost of reducing the likely overall benefits of moving to the new system”.

This is necessary because, as the committee chair professor Alan Manning admits, “our recommendations are likely to reduce future growth of the UK population and economy compared to freedom of movement, by using skill and salary thresholds”.

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Essentially, the committee recommends a looser system than the one currently in place for non-EU migrants – but highlights its pitfalls and complications in comparison to free movement for EU migrants. These poorer prospects for the UK economy and the diminished role recommended for the government’s beloved “Australian-style” system, undermine the “tough” talk on immigration from Home Secretary Priti Patel and her cabinet allies.

What it doesn’t do, however, is rob the Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the rhetoric he has been hammering home since the election campaign about “people of talent”. There’s a very specific reason for this language – the British public is sympathetic to the idea of talented individuals settling in the country: new figures from think tank British Future show 63 per cent of the public believe “high-skilled” migrants should be favoured under a new immigration system.

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Yes, “skill” categories are rather arbitrary (the report actually recommends changing certain job classifications from unskilled to skilled and vice versa), but the mere use of the word reassures voters that they’re somehow getting the “right type” of immigrants.

The big question, then, is whether Johnson will continue his “people of talent” rhetoric while accepting these recommendations and liberalising the immigration system, or if he will prioritise the Conservative manifesto promise that “overall numbers will come down” – reducing economic growth just as he’s trying to increase public spending without raising taxes.