The new immigration system: What it is and what it means

Last week, the government set out the details of its new immigration system which will come into force on 1 January 2021, when freedom of movement with the European Union comes to an end.

According to the government, the new system will treat EU citizens and non-EU citizens equally. Home Secretary Priti Patel said the scheme will ‘attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleash this country’s full potential’. However, the proposals have drawn significant criticism from a number of sectors.

We’ve had a look at how the new system will work and what it could mean for charities.

How the new system will work

The proposals will move the UK to a points-based immigration system, something expected since the first days of Boris Johnson’s premiership in July 2019. Under the system, those from abroad seeking to live and work in the UK will need to score 70 points in order to qualify for a visa. Points are awarded as follows:

Characteristics Points
Mandatory criteria
Offer of job by Home Office-approved sponsor 20
Job at appropriate skill level 20
Speaks English at required level 10
Non-mandatory criteria
Salary of £20,480 (min)–£23,039 0
Salary of £23,040–£25,599 10
Salary of £25,600 or above 20
Job in a shortage occupation 20
Education qualification: PhD in a subject relevant to the job 10
Education qualification: PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job 20


For a migrant meeting the mandatory criteria, earning £25,600 or above will earn the extra 20 points required to achieve the 70 needed for a visa. This figure has been lowered from the £30,000 for migrants currently seeking visas. The government is also lowering what counts as ‘skilled’ from a graduate-level to an A-level qualified job.

Those who meet the three requisite conditions but earn less than £25,600 will still be able to earn 70 points. If they earn between £23,040–£25,599, they will earn 10 points and will require a further 10 to qualify for a visa. If their job is in an industry or sector where the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) says there are staff shortages (eg scientists, medical practitioners, nurses, teachers and social workers), they will earn 20 extra points and will qualify for a visa.

Doctors and nurses hoping to work in the NHS have been promised a fast-track visa scheme including preferential treatment with extra points under the new system. There will be no cap on numbers of migrants entering through the NHS route.

Those holding a PhD in a subject relevant to their job will earn an extra 10 points, or 20 points if the PhD is in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) subject.

If endorsed by an approved company or competent body, the most highly-skilled workers will be able to enter the UK without a visa. This route, known as the ‘Global Talent’ route, will be opened to citizens regardless of their nationality from January 2021.

The government has said that there will not be a route for so-called ‘lower-skilled workers’ to come to the UK following the end of EU freedom of movement rules. UK organisations will ‘need to adapt and adjust’ and instead ‘invest in staff retention, productivity and wider investment in technology and automation’.

Students will also be affected by the new rules. They will need an offer from an approved university or college, be able to speak English and be able to support themselves to achieve the required points.

For those who are self-employed, the government has suggested that the ‘innovators’ route will be widened to apply to EU citizens from next January. There will be no dedicated route for freelancers; rather, those who work in certain professions will be eligible to enter the country under Tier 5 rules, for up to six months per engagement, or pursue routes for short-term business visitors such as the Permitted Paid Engagement scheme.

Irish citizens will not be subject to new immigration rules and will continue with the same rights they currently enjoy under the Ireland Act of 1949.

What it means for charities

Figures from the IPPR suggest that 6.5% of the charity workforce is made up of non-UK nationals, with 3.8% coming from EU member states. This figure is notably smaller than the average figure of 7.5% EU nationals for the entire UK workforce. The number of highly educated (to age 21 or beyond) EU nationals in low- and medium-skilled jobs is significantly higher than for UK-born people: 56% of EU-8 and EU-2 migrants who are highly educated are in such jobs, whereas the figure is only 23% for UK nationals and EU-14 migrants[1].

EU nationals in the charity workforce are much more highly qualified than average sector workers, with nearly three quarters educated to age 21 or beyond, around double the share of UK nationals (37%), and are typically in jobs with a slightly higher pay and skill level than UK nationals.

On the face of it then, the new immigration system may not have an effect on the charity workforce as a whole. Its aim is to encourage higher-skilled immigration from all over the world in line with the immigration policy of many developed countries. However, the number of EU nationals in the charity workforce has doubled from 14,000 to 31,000 since 2000, a far greater rate of growth than the growth of the sector overall. This may well be because of the availability of lower-skilled labour from EU-8 countries, all of whom joined the bloc during the 2004 enlargement.

Areas of uncertainty

In total, almost half (49%) of all EU migrants working in charities are in health and social care: 33% in social work, 12% in residential care and 4% in human health. Many of those workers are classified as low-skilled, so the new system may cause significant problems for charities working in the sector. Social and residential care organisations are already experiencing significant workforce shortages and an income squeeze, with employers struggling to recruit and retain staff due to underfunding. The proposals are therefore creating understandable concerns for social care services in some areas, although MAC will continue to monitor the shortage occupation list, so the impact of these measures remains to be seen.

The new immigration system may have broader implications for the ability of charities to attract workers from abroad at all. Organisations relying on medical research may be adversely affected if we see a downturn in the numbers of research workers in the UK. When coupled with the threat of a hard or no-deal Brexit at the end of the year which could limit information and research sharing with the EU, the new system could have major implications for charities who rely on the world-class work undertaken by EU-born researchers in the UK.

It’s also important to note that the last major change to the immigration system took almost four years to implement. The government is working to a much shorter timeframe, hoping to open initial routes within seven months and have the entire system operational by January 2021. Doubts remain over the ability of the Home Office to carry out wholesale changes in such a short time. There’s also still a great deal of uncertainty over the relationship between these proposals and the EU Settlement Scheme which has a deadline for applications of June 2021, a full six months after these proposals are set to begin.

Without greater clarity from government on the exact details of these proposals and their implementation, charities – particularly those working in health and social care – will have major concerns about the sustainability of their work if increased investment in local government and services is not forthcoming.

Actions for organisations

In the face of this uncertainty, it is vital that all organisations are thinking about what changes to immigration might mean, both for their current workforce and for their ability to fill gaps in the future. This may mean that trustees need to increase training or HR budgets in order to bolster local recruitment, particularly in geographical areas where local services rely heavily on low-skilled migration.

Current EU-born staff may choose to leave the UK, and others may choose to come to the UK. It’s important to identify where these gaps might arise in your workforce through an audit of EU, EEA and/or Swiss nationals, and evaluate the cost of retraining new or existing staff. Finally, familiarisation with the EU Settlement Scheme will allow employers to take steps in supporting EU staff to gain residency in the UK before the new immigration proposals come into force.

NCVO’s guidance on charities and brexit provides further information on steps all organisations can take to mitigate against changes to the immigration system. NCVO will continue to provide information and support to charities as the immigration situation develops.

[1] EU-8 refers to Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia. EU-2 refers to Bulgaria and Romania. EU-14 refers to Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden.


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Avatar photo Ben Westerman is a senior external relations officer at NCVO, leading on Brexit work.

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