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Brexit - UK’s future immigration system

28 January 2019

On 19 December 2018, the Government published its latest proposals for the UK’s immigration system after Brexit. At 168 pages, it is a fairly detailed policy document but there are some key points that employers should know.

From the outset, the Paper makes it clear that from 1 January 2021 (ie the end of the intended Brexit implementation period) the UK will only have one immigration system covering both non-Europeans and EU citizens. During the implementation period, the Government’s framework for mobility with the EU will operate as previously planned; however, the Paper does not comment on what the Government’s immigration policy would be if there were a no-deal Brexit on 29 March 2019. 

After the implementation period, tourists from the EU will not need visas and will continue to be able to spend up to six months in the UK. 

For other visitors from the EU, the current rules for short-term business visitors for employees temporarily seconded to the UK will apply to all individuals (including EU citizens) coming to the UK for six months or less. Individuals that have entered the UK as a visitor from a ‘low risk’ country or a country with which the UK has “reached a specific agreement as part of bilateral negotiations” may be allowed to switch into the skilled worker programme.

Low skilled workers

The Government does not intend to have a separate system or quota for low skilled migrants after Brexit. However, it does plan to create a temporary “Transitional short term workers” program to allow low skilled workers from "low-risk countries" in Europe and further afield to come to the UK (without employer sponsorship) and seek work for up to a year. These low-risk countries will be defined on a published global list of countries with which the UK has existing migration and mobility agreements.

Such individuals will need to apply for a visa in advance and pay a fee: during their 12 months in the UK, they will not have “access to public funds” (normal benefits of citizenship) or bring dependants into the UK or be able to switch to any other form of visa (certified by an ‘electronic status’ recorded on Government systems). The idea is for the status to be shared with airlines to confirm whether an individual has permission to travel to the UK as well as on entry and departure from the UK. After the 12-month period, they must remain outside the UK for a further 12 months before they can apply for another short-term worker visa. 

This new system will not initially have a cap on the number of migrants and is intended to be temporary, with a full review in 2025 - although the Government may impose a cap or cancel the scheme if “the economic conditions in the UK warrant that”. There will be a pilot scheme specifically for agricultural workers in 2019. 

Employers who engage short-term workers from outside the UK will be required to check that they have the right to work in the UK: enforcement activity will be coordinated between immigration officials (checking that workers leave within their 12 months) and HMRC.

High skilled workers

The Paper proposes a new immigration system for skilled migrants from all countries (including EU member states) that will not apply an overall cap on numbers (ie abolishing the current 20,700 annual cap on Tier 2 visas). A minimum salary requirement will be applied for skilled migrants seeking five-year visas and the Government will consult on whether the current £30,000 level should be retained. 

The Government proposes to reduce the qualifications threshold for Tier 2 visas to allow workers with intermediate level skills, at RQF 3-5 level (A level or equivalent) to qualify as well as graduate and post-graduate workers. As now, all those working in the UK under a Tier 2 visa will need to be sponsored by their employer. Employers will pay an immigration skills charge and individual migrants must pay a health charge (unless there are reciprocal health arrangements in place). 

Workers who obtain a Tier 2 visa will be allowed to bring dependants into the UK, extend their stay and switch to other approved immigration routes, and in some cases, settle permanently in the UK.

It is proposed that employers will no longer be required to carry out a resident labour market test as a condition of sponsoring a skilled migrant worker. As there will be no cap, employer sponsorship monthly limits will end so the administrative process should be easier. The Government says it is committed to making further practical reforms to speed up processes although whether it will ever meet its aim of processing “the great majority of work visas within two to three weeks” remains to be seen.  

Other immigrants

For Tier 1 visas, the Government intends to create a new Start-Up visa route in spring 2019 to cater for early stage entrepreneurs with an innovative business idea (who can then move into the Innovator route). It will also raise the cap on the Exceptional Talent route to 2,000 individuals a year. 

The Investor route will continue, as will temporary routes such as the Youth Mobility Schemes and the Tier 5 routes for sportspeople, those in the creative sector and charity workers. 

Students who have completed a degree who want to stay on in the UK to work will be offered six months’ post-study leave (12 months for PHD graduates) to find permanent skilled work (they will be able to work temporarily during that period). Students studying at bachelor’s level or higher will be able to apply to switch into the skilled workers route up to three months before the end of their UK course, and from outside of the UK for two years after their graduation.


The White paper does not mention an overall annual target for the number of inbound migrants although it does expected there will be “an 80 per cent reduction in inflows of long-term workers from the EU and the European Economic Area”. The new system seems to be designed to enable businesses to have access to labour at both high and low skilled levels - even if the proposals would automatically lead to high turnover rates amongst low skilled workers. 

Read the White Paper.

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