General Election 2019: how are our future immigration policies shaping up?

With Election Day looming, here’s a reminder of the three main parties’ manifesto pledges on immigration. We look at how much change we could see to our current immigration system, based on these pledges.


Main pledges

  • End freedom of movement
  • Introduce an ‘Australian-style points based system’ which prioritises those who:
    • Have a ‘good grasp’ of English
    • Do not have criminal convictions
    • Have good education and qualifications
    • Have a job offer (in most cases)
  • ‘Attract the best and brightest’:
    • Introduce an ‘NHS visa’ to allow fast track entry for doctors and nurses with an NHS job offer
    • Fast-track entry to the UK for top science and technology graduates
    • Student visa which allows graduates to work after completing their course
    • Start-up visa to attract entrepreneurs
  • New arrivals, including EU citizens, to contribute to funding of the NHS and the health surcharge to be increased to ensure it covers the full cost of use
  • EU citizens to wait five years before accessing unemployment, housing and child benefits, bringing the rules for EU nationals in line with non-EEA nationals


Main pledges

  • If we remain in the EU, freedom of movement to continue. If we leave the EU, the outcome will be ‘subject to negotiations’, but they will seek to protect the rights of EU citizens here and UK citizens abroad.
  • Remove the cap on net migration
  • End the ‘hostile environment’ and repeal the Immigration Act 2014
  • Compensation for victims of the Windrush scandal
  • End indefinite immigration detention, review alternatives to immigration detention centres and close Yarl’s Wood and Brook House
  • End minimum income requirements for family visas
  • End deportation of family members of people with permission to be in the UK

Liberal Democrats

Main pledges

  • Stop Brexit and retain freedom of movement
  • End the ‘hostile environment’
  • Introduce a two year visa for graduates to work after completing their course
  • Introduce a 28-day time limit on immigration detention and close seven of the nine UK immigration detention centres
  • Move policy making on work permits and student visas from the Home Office to the Departments for Business and Education respectively.
  • End minimum income requirements for family visas
  • Reduce the fee for registering a child as a British citizen to the cost of administration
  • End data sharing between public agencies and the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement and repeal the immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act.

How much change are we likely to see in practise?

With the notable exception of ending free movement, the Conservatives’ pledges do not indicate much substantive change to the immigration system currently in place for non-EEA nationals. While the Conservatives have pledged to introduce an ‘Australian-style points based system’, most of the factors that this system would prioritise are already requirements for the majority of visas under the UK’s current points based system. The main change will be that this system will apply to EEA nationals as well as non-EEA nationals following Brexit.

For example, most visa routes leading to permanent residence already require applicants to evidence their English language ability and there are few ‘work permit’ type visas (under Tiers 2 and 5) that are granted to those without a job offer. In addition, there are already general grounds for refusal which preclude individuals with certain criminal convictions from being granted a UK visa. These grounds apply equally to all visa applicants, no matter the visa route.

One main difference is the requirement to have good education and qualifications. This is not an explicit requirement under the current rules. However, in practise, as work permits under Tier 2 are granted only to those who will fill a role pitched at graduate level (with very limited exceptions), only those with a high level of skills, experience and qualifications to undertake the role will be granted a visa.

With regard to attracting the best and brightest, fast track entry for NHS workers will certainly be welcomed given current shortages. However, the pledge does not offer any further information on how this will be achieved. Under the current rules, most medical occupations are on the shortage occupation list, which means the NHS do not need to advertise a role to the Resident Labour Market before offering it to a non-EEA national (saving significant time in the process), and there is no limit on how many doctors and nurses can be employed from outside of the EU. Further, as a start-up visa was launched in April of this year, the pledge to introduce a start-up visa raises the question as to how this will differ from the current route.

Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have pledged to introduce a visa for graduates to work in the UK for two years after completing their studies, which will in effect be resurrecting the ‘post-study work’ visa which was closed in 2012 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

Meanwhile, Labour’s stance on ending free movement is subject to the outcome of a vote which gives people the ‘final say on Brexit’, meaning their policy is still up in the air and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to stop Brexit altogether which means keeping freedom of movement.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have paid particular attention to human rights based immigration policy. Both have pledged to end the ‘hostile environment’, with Labour going further and promising to repeal the Immigration Act 2014 altogether. They have also both pledged to end indefinite immigration detention, with the Liberal Democrats promising to introduce a 28-day time limit on detention and close 7 of 9 detention centres and Labour promising to close 2 detention centres. Both parties would also abolish the need to meet a minimum income requirement in order for the non-EEA partner/children of a settled person to join them in the UK, thereby strengthening family reunification rights. Both parties’ policies in these areas are likely to have wide reaching effects. Ending the hostile environment could well prevent further suffering by those without the correct documentation, as we tragically saw with victims of the Windrush scandal.

Overall, the Conservatives appear to be describing elements of a system already in place with new language, offering little change. Their manifesto on immigration focuses heavily on economic migration in an apparent attempt to reassure businesses during a period of much uncertainty. On the other hand, the opposition parties mainly highlight elements of the existing system that they wish to abolish.

As immigration practitioners, we certainly welcome the promises to abolish some of the worst parts of our system that can have devastating and unjust effects on our society, such as the hostile environment, indefinite detention and inflexible minimum income requirements for families. However, none of the three main parties present a vision of what a new immigration system could look like. In the context of continuing Brexit uncertainty, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The outcome of this election is likely to have a profound impact on Brexit: it remains to be seen whether whoever leads the UK forward has the imagination to deliver an immigration system which is nimble and fit for the future.

This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of December 11, 2019.