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UNITED KINGDOM: The government is proposing various measures to reduce immigration and save public funds

Less, less, less migration: The UK government is proposing various measures to reduce immigration and save public funds.

On February 16, 2011, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) released a Statement of Intent (SOI) detailing proposals to change the eligibility criteria for the Points-Based System (PBS) Tier 2 migrants and the operation of permanent limits on certain Tier 2 applications. Additionally, proposals to change the criteria for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) for Tiers 1 and 2 and work permit holders were made. These changes will come into force on April 6, 2011, including the final closure of the Tier 1 (General) category. Increases in application fees have also been proposed due to the need to cut public spending.

The Coalition Government's overarching aim for UK immigration is to reduce net migration by "selecting the best and brightest." To help achieve this, UKBA proposes to raise the qualifying thresholds for the Tier 2 category and cap the number of Tier 2 (General) migrants to an annual limit. Moreover, restrictions will extend to the requirements for settlement in the UK to implement the government's "less automatic settlement" agenda.

UKBA is expected to publish the new Rules and formal guidance shortly.

Proposals for Tier 1 (Highly Skilled)

The final closure of Tier 1 (General) on April 6, 2011, will deal a huge blow to both employers and individuals alike. After the dubious operational assessment of the category in October 2010, which purported to find that 29% of Tier 1 migrants were in unskilled jobs (the report was based on solely Tier 1 dependents who had been in the UK for six months), UKBA believed it had justification to delete the entire highly skilled migrant category. At least there will be transitional provisions in place for those who will be submitting eleventh-hour Tier 1 (General) applications by post, so that their applications will be assessed in accordance with the Rules in place on the date of application (the date the application is posted). 

Under the transitional arrangements, migrants who are not already in Tier 1 (General) or its predecessor category under the highly skilled migrant program will not be permitted to switch into this category beginning on April 6, 2011. The Tier 1 (General) route will remain open to allow those with existing leave to enter or remain under Tier 1 (General) or its predecessor to extend their leave. However, the points threshold for extensions will be raised to 100 points for those who required 100 points when first granted leave.

It is feared by immigration practitioners that the Tier 1 (post study work) category may survive the changes only to be phased out after the new rules are implemented. Generous transitional provisions are anticipated, if this were to be the case.

On a positive note, there are proposals for those recognized as possessing "exceptional talent" from different sectors to be certified as "exceptionally talented." It will be decided that a migrant meets the "exceptionally talented" criteria by entities who have been delegated the power to certify migrants. The UKBA has yet to set definitive criteria on what will amount to "exceptional talent." Unsurprisingly, a Nobel prize winner will be viewed as such. The proposals need to be built upon and it is still unclear how the capped allocation of 1,000 migrants for each sector will be managed, let alone how UKBA will deal with an undoubted "oversubscription" to the category.

Proposals for reform of the Tier 1 Entrepreneur and Investor categories have not yet been published but future (skilled) changes are expected to be nominal.

Proposals for Tier 2

As the main category for sponsored skilled workers, Tier 2 requires a Certificate of Sponsorship (COS) from the migrant's licensed sponsor. These will be divided into "Restricted" and "Unrestricted" COS.

From April 6 on, the Restricted COS will be capped at an annual limit of 20,700 - 4,200 of which will be available for the first month and 1,500 available thereafter. It is proposed that if a monthly limit is undersubscribed, the balance will be added to the allocation for the following month. If the monthly limit is oversubscribed, applications will be prioritized based on a new points table. Much like the old work permit scheme, which ironically the PBS was supposed to displace, sponsors will need to apply to the monthly panel for a Restricted COS each time they wish to sponsor a migrant under Tier 2 (General).

This points system will prioritize occupations on the new shortage occupation list followed by occupations at the Ph.D. level and then occupations meeting the resident labour market test (RLMT). Points will also be awarded for salaries ranging from £20,000-£20,999 with further points for salaries of £100,000 to £149,000. Persons in occupations with salaries of less than £20,000 will be unable to meet the minimum points required.

Unrestricted COS are only available for the Tier 2 categories unaffected by the limit. These fortunate few include intracompany transfers, Tier 2 migrants extending with their original employer or switching to a new employer, migrants switching into Tier 2 (General) from a permitted category, applications under transitional arrangements for existing Tier 2 and work permit holders, positions with a salary over £150,000, and Tier 2 sports people or ministers of religion.

Sponsors will be given an initial annual allocation of Unrestricted COS based on UKBA's consideration of their allocation requests. These surprisingly generous provisions should enable sponsors to continue employing migrants who are extending their leave with their original employer; switching into Tier 2 (General); or are intracompany transfer migrants, without the need for a salary assessment (as there is for Restricted COS). The consequence will no doubt be a rush of annual allocation requests from sponsors who had been stripped of COS under the previous interim limits. Immigration practitioners are concerned that UKBA may not have provided for this or at least included any mechanism to prioritize urgent requests.

As the new graduate occupation and shortage occupation lists are compiled, some occupations are expected to be dropped from the "skilled" threshold. Positions previously on the shortage occupation list may be removed if they do not meet the new graduate-level criteria. Nevertheless, provided the minimum salary levels are defined clearly and the lists compiled in accordance with Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommendations, some positions may be elevated to the new skilled level by virtue of the migrants' previous experience being equivalent to graduate-level. This will apply to all migrants across the board for both Restricted and Unrestricted COS.

Another change proposed for the Tier 2 category is the increased English-language requirement to intermediate English at level B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for languages. Furthermore, Tier 2 entry clearance applicants will no longer be able to claim points for qualifications.

Settlement

Migrants submitting applications for ILR in the UK on or after April 6, 2011, will be affected by the changes to settlement requirements to be introduced on April 6, 2011. The changes will introduce a new income requirement for Tier 1 (General), Tier 2 (General) and work permit holders applying for settlement; will amend the Knowledge of Language and Life in the UK requirement for Tier 1 (General), Tier 2 (General) and work permit holders; and will clarify the criminality test applied to all applicants for settlement. UKBA's proposals to tighten settlement requirements bear, on closer inspection, a likeness to the outgoing government's ideas (published in the "Path to Citizenship" green paper on February 20, 2008) for selecting migrants with "the right values and commitments" who could integrate well into British society. There is one key difference however, as there appears to be no inclination to mimic the "earned citizenship" proposal.

Unfortunately, as changes are proposed for the Tier 1 and Tier 2 categories, UKBA has failed to align its proposals with settlement rules and nationality law. For instance, the lure of "accelerated settlement" for Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) and Tier 1 (Investor) migrants who invest more money into the UK does not factor in the requirement of continuous residence in the UK under the settlement rules, which most entrepreneurs and investors will not be able to meet. UKBA have remained silent on this matter, but it is evident that primary legislation may need to be amended accordingly.

Conclusion

UKBA's aim to create a "flexible system designed to meet business needs" as well as to reduce net economic migration may seem almost impracticable but may be indeed achieved in part. Though it is a difficult balancing act, it cannot be denied that many potential applicants will now fall short of the higher thresholds, resulting in a net reduction in migration. It remains to be seen whether the new rules will constrict businesses from employing as many non-EEA migrants as required or whether businesses will remain unscathed.

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