Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a dramatic overhaul of its immigration policy that will see its borders closed to unskilled workers in favour of a points-based system.
Although the government claims the new laws will see it take “full control” of British borders, the move has been condemned by some industry leaders, trade bodies and other organisations.
Many highlighted how industries including agriculture and hospitality will be affected without access to seasonal and unskilled workers.
Under the new laws, a person looking to apply to work in the UK will need seventy points, comprised of “essential” characteristics such as speaking English at a required level, to other categories including qualifications and salary.
Adam Marshall, Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The speed and scale of these changes would require significant adjustment by businesses from Cornwall to Inverness.
“Companies are already investing heavily in home-grown talent across the UK, but critical labour shortages mean firms will still need access to overseas workers at all skill levels.
“The new points system must be able to respond quickly to changing market needs, and the application process must be radically simplified.”
Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General, said: “Getting a new immigration system right on day one will be critical for economic growth and the UK’s global reputation as it forges a new path outside the EU.
“Firms recognise and accept that freedom of movement is ending, and have sought a system that is both open and controlled, valuing people’s contribution beyond their salary while retaining public confidence.
“Several aspects of the new system will be welcomed by business, particularly abolishing the cap on skilled visas, introducing a new post-study work visa for overseas students, and reducing the minimum salary threshold from £30,000.
“Nonetheless, in some sectors firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses. With already low unemployment, firms in care, construction, hospitality, food and drink could be most affected.
“Firms know that hiring from overseas and investing in the skills of their workforce and new technologies is not an ‘either or’ choice – both are needed to drive the economy forward.
“So careful implementation across all UK nations and regions will be required. A regularly reviewed shortage occupations list, with promises of further flexibility, will be vital for the effectiveness of the new system. Above all, the government must work with employers and employees – especially smaller firms – to ensure they have the time to adapt to new policies and practices.”
Mike Cherry, National Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “We see the benefits of a points-based model, so long as it’s one that’s easy to use and affordable for small businesses – almost all of which have no experience of using our current immigration system.
“Against a backdrop of stifling skills shortages, sluggish economic growth and an ageing population, it’s critical that we get this right, particularly as the timeframes are so short.
“It’s important that we see a focus on simplicity and cost control. As things stand, the cost of sponsoring a Tier 2 visa to a small employer can top £3,000. We should be looking to keep that figure below £1,000, to enable firms to invest in jobs and training.
“And we should protect access to the skills small firms need to thrive. We know that small employers rank proficiency in English as the most important quality in a new employee.
“It should be a system that supports all communities. Additional points should be awarded to those planning to work outside of London and the South East.
“Typically small firms that recruit from the EU do so into medium or high skilled roles. We know that many of those roles do not have salaries of £30,000 or more, so it’s good to see the MAC and Government responding to our concerns in this area.
“It’s right that additional points are awarded for those with skills relevant to industries struggling with shortages. However, there are also many jobs in the care and construction sectors that may not meet skill requirements but are essential to our economy and society.
“That’s why we’re proposing a new dedicated social care visa, in recognition of the chronic personnel shortages in this crucial sector and the fact that it will take 15 years for us to train enough UK citizens to address those shortages.
“Ultimately, small firms want a responsive immigration system that is alive to the skills shortages – at all levels – that are holding them back.
“They want to have a role in upskilling their workforce and bringing through the next generation. But that will be a long journey – we can’t be expected to make it overnight.
“Equally, the EU contractors that contribute so much to our economy should still have the freedom to offer their vital skill sets in the UK.”
Mark Harrison, Policy Manager (Employment and Access to Labour) at the Food and Drink Federation, said:
“Today’s announcement is a significant improvement on previous proposals for skilled workers. FDF and its members will welcome the introduction of a global talent route, and the reduction of the skilled worker salary threshold is a step in the right direction. It is also encouraging to see the commitment to streamline the system, but it must also be made accessible and affordable for businesses of all sizes, many of whom won’t have used the immigration system before.
“The food and drink industry is reliant on workers at all skill levels. We have concerns about access to those potential employees who won’t qualify through these ‘skilled’ routes such as bakery assistants, meat processors, and workers essential to the production of huge array of basic foodstuffs such as cheese, pasta, and sausages. While we are committed to promoting the use of automation and technology in our sector, the benefits of such innovations will not be felt overnight and some food chain roles remain challenging to automate. With the UK experiencing historically low unemployment rates and high vacancy levels, we believe a route for entry-level workers should be introduced which retains control of immigration while also supporting business needs, incentivising upskilling, and boosting productivity.”