Today the Home Secretary Priti Patel has published the government's latest plans for immigration reforms under the underwhelming title of "further guidance". A more appropriate name would be “further disappointment” as much remains unknown, to be decided some other time. Less than five months from leaving the EU, this is a very poor position to be left in. If only the Home Office's passion for overblown press releases were as strong as its focus on delivering improved performance.
As someone who contributed to the Law Commission's report on simplifying the immigration rules, I am delighted to see its recommendations will be accepted although it remains unclear how far the government is willing to go.
However, one change that will not simplify matters is introducing minimum salary thresholds subject to a "going rate". So it's not enough to meet a general minimum – salaries must be within 80 per cent or more of the one-size fits all "usual going rate". So a veterinarian on £22,900 would make above the published general minimum of £20,480, but would still be barred because she'd actually have to earn 80 per cent of £32,500. This means that the simple-looking three bands of income thresholds and points will actually differ for every profession – instead of three categories, there would be three for every role in the country whose amount would change regularly. The complexity and problems surrounding the new system will reach new heights. Adding such significant confusion will not help boost Britain as open for business and risks turning away top talent.
The guidance increases uncertainty. Start with the claim that offenders with a custodial sentence of at least 12 months will be barred. Sounds simple, but how will this work? This is talking about prison in a different country for crimes that might not be illegal here in the UK. Criminal background checks have been patchy and need to be improved to meet this standard, and there needs to be clarity about whether someone with a year or more suspended sentence who does not spend one day in prison would be barred. All of this is to be confirmed later.
We remain none the wiser about how much of the system will work. For example, there already is a points-based system for non-EU migrants that has been around since 2008. It's deliberately misleading to make no reference to the fact that the "new" system is a revision of what Labour introduced over a decade ago. This message should be repeated again and again until the government acknowledges it.
When we look at our existing points-based system, we can see it does not include a route for family visas and reunification. While the government seemed keen to change this, they wisely took the advice from the Migration Advisory Committee to avoid it. However, this major route for migration affecting about one in five remains undecided and to be confirmed later. This is an area of real change where the can has yet again been kicked down the road.
The guidance claims it has learned the lessons from Windrush. But a key problem was that there were people with right of continuing residency, and often citizenship, who did not have documented proof from the Home Office in hand. This was a problem under the hostile environment where such proof was required from private landlords, to register with a GP or open a bank account. However, there's nothing in the further guidance about guaranteeing EU citizens with similar rights to residency or citizenship like in Windrush will receive their documented proof – and the law creating the hostile environment will remain unchanged. Together, these factors suggest lessons have not been learned, only compensation paid. This is not good enough.
The Home Office makes much noise about how it will be restricting immigration only to those with a working knowledge of English. There are exceptions they aren't mentioning, like for artists, athletes, musicians and "religious workers". So contrary to its public announcements, there is actually more "business as usual" in these guidelines than the government acknowledges. Again.
Then there's the money. The "NHS surcharge" is misnamed. The price reflects estimated uses of public services not limited to the NHS. The original rationale is the impact of migrants using the NHS would be offset by the money raised. But the money is not actually linked to a migrant's local health authority and instead goes into a large pot – and so not fulfilling its original purpose. People are paying money on top of taxes that isn't going to where it is needed. And it's scandalous the government refuses to rule out an exemption for health and care workers given the sacrifices made this year fighting Covid-19.
The fees and income continue to rise and rise. The government has raised student visas from £348 to £475 and skilled worker visas from £1,220 to £1,408. Those with UK ancestry see their fees doubled from £516 to £1,033. While the Home Office collects ever greater profits, there is no plan for this ensuring a better service for applicants, businesses or families. The profiteering is already at 900 per cent in some cases. It's wrong that immigrants are exploited so blatantly and, worse, that much of the funding raised is sent elsewhere and not to improve a system lacking strong public confidence. For this government, migrants' only value seems to be what they can be charged, not what they can contribute.
This is an opportunity delayed. We do not know all categories that will earn points. While we know that experience can earn points in addition to qualifications, we do not have the full guidance on either. It seems most of how this system will work is to be decided – and whether or not there is a deal with the EU could change these decisions yet again.
What I think many of us had hoped was that we get a clearer picture about how each of the pathways worked so that individuals and businesses can plan. The government seems to be leaving this to the wire – and while they make up their minds, businesses will have to wait and delay their plans which does nothing for an economy needing all the help it can get.
The law is sometimes referred to as a patchwork quilt. What we have here is a few pieces but nothing stitched together yet – we are not as far forward as we should be as the clock towards Brexit continues to tick.
Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University and author of Becoming British