Net migration reached a record high of 336,000 for the year ending June 2015. The figure – the difference between the number of people arriving and leaving the UK – was 82,000 more than the previous year, spurring reactions of a 'complete failure' by the government to control immigration.
But when dissecting the figures, the number of non-EU citizens entering the UK actually accounts for less of the overall net migration than in previous years. The problem is that many sectors still rely greatly on overseas workers to plug a widening skills gap.
Of those coming into the country with a definite job 101,000 were EU citizens compared to just 54,000 non-EU professionals. These contrasting figures question the need for the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) proposals – to be announced January 2016 and enforced on 6 April – which will limit the UK's reliance on non-EU sponsored workers under Tier 2 of the points-based system.
The MAC is expected to recommend restricting job vacancies for non-EU workers to ‘highly skilled specialists', prohibiting dependants of sponsored workers from taking employment. It is also due to introduce a skills levy, an NHS surcharge for Intra Company Transfers (ICTs), and to raise minimum salary requirements.
The great cull
The Home Office has already shut down several routes for non-EU migrants entering or remaining in the UK for work purposes. In 2011 it closed the Highly Skilled Migrant route and the Post-Study Work route, which allowed employment and self-employment.
Who qualifies as a ‘sponsored worker’ has also changed dramatically. Prior to 2011 sponsored workers could qualify if they carried out a job vacancy at supervisory level (NQF Level 3). In 2012 this moved up to technical and professional jobs (NQF Level 4), and subsequently knowledge-based professionals or professional management positions (NQF Level 6) for the majority of new applicants.
Non-EU migrant workers must also be paid the minimum ‘going rate’ for the job in question, and unless the individual is transferring extensive knowledge and skills between linked companies a ‘market test’ is normally involved. This means advertising the vacancy to allow settled workers a chance to apply. The majority of sponsored workers can't settle in the UK or claim public funds or benefits unless they've been here for five consecutive years and have indefinite leave to remain.
The MAC's Statement of Intent will be the largest change to sponsored workers in more than five years. Prospective employees could be forgiven for thinking that the UK is no longer an attractive option for a long-term move. So at a time when the economy needs access to a wide pool of talent a cap on overseas expertise will be detrimental to businesses, many of whom will struggle to afford the increased labour and administration costs.
HR managers in companies reliant on non-EU workers are encouraged to initiate market tests and submit sponsorship applications before these changes come into force. The earlier the better, as there's likely to be a surge in demand. Licence renewals will probably be more complex so start to forecast vacancies and plan financially now so funds are available for applications after 6 April, should appropriate skills not be found within the UK.
Most importantly, review your record-keeping system on overseas workers; with such change often comes an increase in compliance checks. Ensure your reporting is robust against Prevention of Illegal Working checks and conforms to Sponsor Duties for licence holders – the most important thing is that the company remains compliant.
Jonathan Beech is managing director of Migrate UK , a law firm specialising in immigration law