Marley Morris explains the likely rationale behind Boris Johnson’s reference to an Australian points-based immigration system for Britain, and why the proposal is fundamentally open-ended.
‘No one believes more strongly than I do in the benefits of migration to our country, but I am clear that our immigration system must change.’ So said Boris Johnson in his first address to the House of Commons as Prime Minister. But while he declared he wanted to see a ‘radical rewriting of our immigration system’, we are still in the dark about what this rewriting will mean in practice.
At the centre of Johnson’s comments on migration was the announcement that one of his first priorities will be the introduction of an ‘Australian-style’ points-based immigration system. This long-held commitment dates back to the EU referendum campaign, where the leading campaigners behind Vote Leave argued for ending the free movement of people within the EU and introducing a system based on the Australian model after Brexit. Now Johnson has shown he means business by announcing that he will ask the government’s Migration Advisory Committee to review the ‘Australian-style’ points-based system to see how it could work for the UK.
The rationale behind the announcement is likely to be largely symbolic. The phrase ‘Australian-style points-based system’ performs a double function. On the one hand, Johnson wants to reassure those members of the public with concerns about the current system that immigration will be carefully controlled: indeed, the Australian model is one of the most frequent themes in conversations with the public on migration, and is often considered as emblematic of a firm and uncompromising approach to migration management. On the other hand, the reference to this system has a modern and liberal flavour, and is perhaps aimed at reassuring business that the new policy will be oriented towards welcoming skills and talent from abroad.
Beyond the symbolism, however, Johnson will have to make a choice: does he want his ‘Australian-style’ points-based system to be designed to bear down on migration, or does he want to unveil an open, liberal, and outward-looking policy for post-Brexit Britain?
In itself, calling for a points-based system tells us little about where migration policy is headed under a Johnson government. At its simplest, the idea of a points-based system is to reward individuals seeking to come to the UK by giving them points for particular attributes – based for instance on their age, qualifications, skills, and experience. Once an individual has enough points, they are granted admittance. In some more complex systems, there might be a two-stage process (known as the ‘Expression of Interest’ model). For example, in the first stage, migrants may apply to be admitted into an initial pool of potential applicants if they meet certain qualifying criteria; in the second stage, they may then be ranked according to a points-based system and subsequently selected to make a full application.
As Madeleine Sumption from the Migration Observatory has explained, points-based systems generally have a number of common features: they prioritise people on the basis of particular personal characteristics (typically younger, more highly qualified, and more experienced applicants), they allow migrants to come to the UK free from the attachment to a particular employer, and they involve more direct government intervention and control than alternative systems.
In contrast, the UK’s current work-based system for non-EU citizens is employer-led: in general, migrants looking to secure a work visa must be sponsored by a legitimate employer, and the job they are filling must be classified at a particular skill level and meet a particular salary threshold. Under an employer-led system, a migrant’s work visa is directly tied to their employer, and moving jobs requires finding an alternative employer sponsor with an eligible vacancy. In practice, these different models often blur at the edges – for instance, Australia has both employer sponsored and points-based work migration routes.
Given these two different models, Johnson’s proposal is fundamentally open-ended. Beyond ending the current system of free movement in the EU, it is unclear in which direction the government might go. For instance, in one scenario, the government could take the current sponsorship system for non-EU citizens as a starting point, roll this out to EU citizens, and then apply a points-based system for individual applicants on top of the pre-existing rules. Under this work visa system, migrants would be required both to have an employer to sponsor them at the right skill and salary level, as well as sufficient points – based on their personal characteristics, such as their age and qualifications – in order to be admitted.
Alternatively, the government could introduce a new points-based route for migrants that sits alongside the current sponsorship system. This would allow migrants to come to the UK without being tied to a particular employer, provided they had the right set of characteristics to unlock the necessary points. Employers would presumably welcome this route as a way of easily hiring migrants without the burden of going through the sponsorship system. It might also be an appealing option for EU citizens, given large numbers of EU workers in the UK are young and highly qualified, and so would score well under this route.
Even more radically, Johnson could do away with the sponsorship system altogether and adopt a pure points-based system, where no migrant coming to the UK for work is tied to a particular employer. While this model would still be more restrictive for EU citizens compared with maintaining freedom of movement, it would represent a liberalisation of the non-EU route. Moreover, it would undoubtedly be far less severe than the post-Brexit proposals put forward by Theresa May’s government.
There are also other key unanswered questions. For instance, should the points-based system seek out the so-called ‘best and brightest’ by placing significant weight on academic qualifications? Or should it adopt a more nuanced approach by considering a greater range of criteria, such as work experience and other types of skills?
The future of the points-based system therefore very much hangs in the balance. Johnson could take a more cautious and conservative route – opting to stick largely to the current system, perhaps with further restrictions in place – or he could initiate a radical overhaul as part of his plans for a ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit. Time will tell which path he chooses to take.
Marley Morris is Associate Director for Immigration, Trade and EU Affairs at IPPR.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).