After three and a half years of uncertainty following the Brexit referendum, the government has announced exactly how it plans to begin reforming the UK immigration system for a world after free movement. These form the initial stage of a “multi-year programme of change” with much yet to be decided or announced, but what do we know so far?

With the end of free movement, EU, EEA and Swiss citizens arriving after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020 will no longer be able work without restriction in the UK.  Migrants from these countries will be brought under the same rules as other nationalities but this means those rules need to be changed to meet the new challenges facing the UK labour market.  Most of the proposals announced so far deal with changes to Skilled Worker visas (which currently fall under the Tier 2 visa category) and may seem familiar to some, since they are very close to how Tier 2 looked between 2008 and 2011. 

The main changes are:

  • The skill level required will be lowered from degree level to A-level. 
  • The overall salary threshold will be lowered from £30,000 to £25,600 (or the market rate for the particular job if that is higher).
  • It will also be possible for some roles/individuals to be paid lower than the threshold: up to 10% lower than the threshold if the individual has a PhD relevant to the role; or up to 20% lower than the threshold if the individual will be working in a recognised shortage occupation or has a STEM PhD relevant to the role.
  • The annual cap on visa numbers will be suspended (to account for EU citizens falling within the same visa system as the rest of the world).
  • The requirement to advertise the position to local workers before recruiting overseas will be removed. 

Some things will remain the same as they are under Tier 2 at the moment.  Skilled Worker visas will still require the applicant to have a suitable level of English language and a job offer from a UK employer with a sponsor licence as they do now.  This last means that employers who have so far relied on EU workers should plan ahead and consider whether or not they expect they will need to sponsor Skilled Workers from the EU or the rest of the world from 2021, applying for a sponsor licence if so. 

With regard to other proposals, the government has only given limited information so far. 

  • Existing categories such as the recently rebranded Global Talent visa and visas for students, ministers of religion, sportspersons and entertainers are expected to be made available to EU migrants as well.
  • There are plans to create a new unsponsored work visa where applicants are assessed on a range of criteria including age, qualifications and work experience. However the government intends to take its time over this in order to avoid the problems associated with the similar Tier 1 (General) category which was closed in 2011 due to perceived abuse, so we shouldn’t expect details soon.

Although there are some concessions here to increase employers’ access to visas for overseas workers, they do not completely fill the gap that will be left by free movement and employers in some sectors will be disappointed. Roles can still be filled by EU migrants already in the UK (or who arrive before the end of the transition period) as well as by Youth Mobility migrants and dependants of Skilled Workers, all of whom have broad rights to work in the UK.

EU citizens looking to move to the UK from 2021 should consider all the options available to them, whether that means bringing their moving forward to before the end of the year or applying for visas under the Points-Based System or family-based route.  They should also consider exactly what they will be doing while in the UK and whether a visa will be required at all – the government has confirmed that they intend for EU citizens to be able to visit the UK as tourists or for specific business activities without getting a visa in advance.  In the longer term, however, all visitors to the UK (except Irish citizens who will continue to have special status) will be required to obtain electronic approval before travelling.

At the same time that the government is planning widespread changes to the UK’s immigration system, the Home Secretary has also confirmed that we can shortly expect their response to the Law Commission’s report into simplification of the immigration rules.