How could a UK points-based immigration system work?

Border checks at Heathrow Airport Image copyright PA Media

The government has revealed more details of its plan for a new immigration system to replace freedom of movement, now the UK has left the EU.

Under the new system, EU migrants will be treated the same as those from the rest of the world.

It has published these proposals after considering recommendations from its expert advisers, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

Taking control of immigration was one of the key themes of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.

Long term net migration to the UK

Source: ONS

What's in the proposals?

The government wants a "points-based system" which takes different factors like skills and language into account when awarding visas which would allow people to work in the UK.

In a policy statement being published on Wednesday 19 February, the government says that to get a visa, applicants from anywhere in the world must:

  • Have a job offer from an "approved employer" at an "appropriate skill level"
  • Speak English

That will get an applicant to 50 points. But they must have 70 points to be eligible for a visa. The most straightforward route to the final 20 points is that the applicant will:

  • Earn at least £25,600 (reduced from the £30,000 which currently applies to non-EU applicants. This was a recommendation from the MAC.)

But they can also gain extra points for having better qualifications (10 points for a relevant PhD; or 20 points for a PhD in science, technology, engineering or maths) or an offer of a job in which the UK has a shortage (20 points), even if they don't earn as much money.

What's the UK system now?

Currently, those from within the EU do not need a visa to work in the UK because they benefit from freedom of movement - although there are limits on claiming certain benefits.

For those from outside the EU, there is already a system in place based on points.

These points are already awarded for having English language skills, being sponsored by a company and meeting a salary threshold.

A maximum number of work visas are awarded - the cap is set at around 21,000 a year but it isn't often met.

There are four "tiers" of visa assessed on points. There are a few other types of visa available, with different rules - for example, family visas for the spouses and relatives of people coming on work visas.

The four points-based visas are for:

  • Temporary workers, for example people coming to do seasonal work on farms or in a theatre production or on a charity project
  • Students
  • Skilled workers
  • "High-value" migrants for example people with "exceptional talent" or major investors

Under the new system, the government will continue with a pilot scheme for seasonal agricultural workers. But it does not intend to introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route.

Why do people keep talking about Australia?

Australia is the country often given as an example by politicians, although Canada and New Zealand also have points-based systems.

They have a lot of similarities to the system the UK uses for non-EU migrants, although each system awards different numbers of points for different things.

In these kinds of systems, "there is only one way you can get in and that's if you meet all of those criteria," according to Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at University of Oxford.

"What the UK points system doesn't do is assess the individuals for things like their age and qualifications. The UK system trusts the employer to decide whether the person is qualified to do the job."

In Australia, being aged between 25 and 33 years old will get you 30 points - almost halfway to the eligibility threshold of 65 points.

The UK also does not have the same sort of decentralised system as Australia, in which different states may try to attract migrants with particular skills. Scotland is keen to introduce this sort of devolution and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon unveiled proposals for a Scottish visa to address skills gaps and "long-term demographic change" on 27 January 2020, which were swiftly rejected in Westminster.

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