The new points-based immigration system gives ministers a lot of room for manoeuvre

After a couple of months in which the Government has sometimes given the impression of having stalled in the wake of December’s election victory, this week we’ve got details of a major plank of its agenda: the points-based immigration system.

It’s a simple enough system on the surface. An applicants needs 70 points to get into the UK, across nine categories. Three of these – ‘Offer of job by approved sponsor’, ‘Job at appropriate skill level’, and ‘Speaks English at required level’ – are mandatory, and add up to 50 points.

The remaining 20 points can be made up by having a PhD in a STEM subject, securing a job in a ‘shortage occupation’, one with a salary north of £25,600, or a combination of a ‘relevant’ PhD and a salary between £23,040 and £25,599.

As you might expect, this has prompted howls from business and pro-immigration commentators, and Downing Street probably won’t be displeased at having the new system’s reputation for toughness burnished in this way. But the reality is that the plan, as stated, gives the Government quite a lot of flexibility.

It really depends on what meaning the Government ends up giving to “approved sponsor”, “appropriate skill level”, and “shortage occupation”. Between them those words give Priti Patel the leeway to create an overall impression of control whilst authorising a pretty laissez-faire approach on a sector-by-sector basis.

And should the voters’ attitudes – which are currently relatively relaxed about immigration – harden again, the Government can use this system as a sort of valve to ease or impose restrictions in line with public opinion.

This plan seems to tick the boxes set out by Vote Leave in their referendum campaigning on the issue: it ‘takes back control’, it offers a more equal regime for EU and non-EU migrants, and it at least gives the Government the tools to bring down the headline numbers – although we should not forget that rules for work visas do not comprise the whole of the immigration system.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not this actually happens. Not for nothing have people familiar with the Australian system long pointed out that it actually facilitates immigration. Proposals floated in today’s papers to ease the requirement for a job offer, are in the spirit of the original. As one analyst points out: “In Australia, the single biggest cohort of new economic permanent resident visas each year are awarded to people without a job offer.”

The Tory manifesto promised lower overall numbers, and ministers must be alive to the possibility that increased non-EU immigration, facilitated by reduced income or job offer requirements, could offset falling numbers from the EU. It may be that even this most flexible system won’t spare Boris Johnson the choice between meeting that commitment an avoiding a showdown with business.

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