This was written on 23 August 2019
“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. For years, politicians have promised the public an Australian-style points-based system, and today I will actually deliver on those promises: I will ask the to conduct a review of that system as the first step in a radical rewriting of our immigration system, and I am convinced that we can produce a system that the British people can have confidence in.” - 25 July 2019
The Prime Minister’s promise to model post-Brexit policy on the Australian approach to immigration is unsurprising. The Australian points-based system was extolled by the Vote Leave campaign as the model of a firm policy that enables controlled economic migration in line with national needs. This promise strikes an easy chord with voters demanding a hardnosed approach to immigration, while comforting those concerned about fulfilling the demands of the national labour force and keen to encourage skilled and talented individuals to come to the UK.
But beyond the political symbolism, it remains to be seen what this pledge might mean for immigration policy post-Brexit.
A points system is a means of selecting migrant workers by ranking job-seekers on the basis of their qualifications and characteristics. As it stands, the UK already operates a points-based system for migrants from outside the EU. This is an employer-led system, where prospective workers must be sponsored by a licensed employer to fill a position at a classified skill level that carries a minimum salary threshold. The worker’s rights in the country are tied to their employer, and the employer takes on responsibilities as a sponsor that carry tough penalties for non-compliance.
The Australian model, by contrast, is more centrally planned. As Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Advisory Committee : “the government, rather than employers, plays the key role in deciding who should be admitted.” It is the government who decides which criteria are most important and determines how many workers it will invite to make a visa application. A job offer is not required under the Australian system, although there are employer-sponsored visas available, and workers are not tied to a specific employer. Unlike in the UK, workers in Australia can get permanent visas immediately and even those on provisional visas can work in any job on arrival.
Debates surrounding the effectiveness and impact of points-based systems focus on the scope for applicants to qualify without an employer, which gives rise to concerns that a person may not actually be employable on arrival. But it is not a prerequisite of a points system that workers can be admitted without a job offer, and many states take a hybrid approach. For instance, Austria allows applicants who reach a threshold number of points to apply for a ‘shortage occupation’ post, while New Zealand awards a large and typically decisive number of points to those with a job offer.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s recent in July 2019 suggests that only migrants with a job offer from a registered employer will be able to come to the UK, which would hint against a pendulum swing in the Australian direction in this respect. But it remains to be seen what balance the government will strike.
Although the disconnect from employment is the main distinction between the UK and Australian models and the understandable focus of public debate, there are other notable differences between the systems that might influence post-Brexit policy. Sumption explain that “there is also more scrutiny of migrants’ personal characteristics such as their age and qualifications, and not just the jobs they will do” in Australia. Factors including language, work experience and education might be assessed and weighted, and workers must pass a skills assessment in addition to the points test to demonstrate that their qualifications are occupation-appropriate.
As it stands, there is little variation in policy across the UK, although there are different occupancy shortage lists in Scotland. In Australia, states and territories can recommend workers based on their own criteria; while workers still need to pass the central requirements, they can get additional points for this nomination. The Australian integration of local needs with the national system could give some insight into how a more central immigration policy might recognize the varying devolved and regional workforce requirements across the UK.
In short, what adopting an “Australian-style” system in the UK means in practice will entirely depend on how it is designed and the attributes favoured. What is clear is that any points system will be a powerful tool for engineering British society to the design of its architects. Careful scrutiny from practitioners and stakeholders is required.