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The Big Ben, covered in scaffolding, is currently undergoing repairs. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: When the Big Ben's minute hand strikes "01" on January 1, 2021, that could be the moment you've been waiting for.

That moment — if you have a job in the UK that offers at least $33,000/year (and you’re keen to become one of the Queen’s subjects) — marks the clearest opening of a pathway for you to legally live and work in Britain.

Why is that? What does it mean?

It’s part of a massive overhaul of UK’s immigration system. It forms part of the post-Brexit, BoJo-led era. On Tuesday, February 18, 2020, Britain announced new immigration rules that has two clear implications:

  • (1) European Union citizens will find it tougher to live and work in the UK
  • (2) People from many other nations who qualify under a new points-based system, will find it easier.

What’s triggered the policy shift?

This is a major policy change after Brexit, with a potential upside for aspiring UK immigrants: The new rules will, in theory, make it easier for people from many other nations (outside the EU) to do it, starting January 1, 2021.

“We're ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people's priorities,” UK Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement late Tuesday.

What’s the rhetoric behind the major policy change?

It’s fueled by a staunchly anti-EU sentiment among the pro-Brexit camp — especially those who are vehemently opposed to the free movement of people within the eurozone — now at the helm of the British government, led by PM Boris Johnson. It's the same chorus sang by his ardent Brexit supporters, both within and outside the Conservative party.

The new rules, Johnson explains, would “open up the UK to the brightest and the best from around the world” — while ending “the reliance on cheap, low-skilled labour coming into the country.”

He did not mention Eastern Europeans who take up low-paying jobs clearing restaurant tables in the UK.

What are UK employers saying?

British employers, however, tag the changes as “radical”. They warn it could precipitate a staffing “crisis” for health and social care (read: elderly care) sectors.

Why is the UK doing this?

It’s a deep-seated resentment, a pushback against the influx of low-skilled, low-wage workers from mainland Europe, mostly Eastern Europe, over the last few years of "free movement".

The pro-Brexit camp, who narrowly won a referendum on June 23, 2016, has dangled the spectre of loss of "control" over Britain's borders, due to what they consider as an all-too-intrusive setup under the European Union, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.

It was a key sticking point that drove voters to support a divorce from the other 27 EU nations in the 2016 vote.

After 47 years under EU, Britain made an exit on January 31, 2020. Now, an emotionally-charged overhaul of the country's immigration system has become more apparent.

Brexit: When did it kick in, what happens next?

The UK left the EU on January 31, 2020.

But why is the UK still under EU?

In theory and in practice, the UK is still under EU, but not for long. At the moment, there's an 11-month “transition” period in place before the clean break happens.

During this 11-month period, which ends on December 31, 2020, the UK effectively remains in the EU's customs union and single market. The UK continues to obey EU rules.

But during this interim period, the UK is already detached from the union’s political institutions, i.e. British MEPs no longer sit in the European Parliament.

What happens during transition period?

During the period citizens of any of the EU's 27 nations can still freely live and work in the UK.

What happens from January 1, 2021?

Starting New Year’s Day, citizens of the EU and non-EU countries will be subject to new immigration rules in the UK.

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In this file photo taken on March 25, 2017 Demonstrators holding EU and Union flags gather in front of the Houses of Parliament in Parliament Square following an anti Brexit, pro-European Union (EU) march in London, ahead of the British government's planned triggering of Article 50 next week. Britain is set to leave the European Union at 2300 GMT on January 31, 2020, 43 months after Britons voted in the June 2016 referendum to leave the EU, ending more than four decades of economic, political and legal integration with its closest neighbours. Image Credit: AFP

UK’s new points-based immigration system: What are the changes being introduced?

Britain's new “points-based immigration system” would assess applicants who wish to immigrate to the UK based a range of skills, qualifications, salaries or professions, according to British Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Change No. 1: MINIMUM SALARY OFFER

People hoping to work in Britain will need a job offer paying at least GBP25,600 ($33,000) a year. This is less than the current GBP30,000 pounds ($39,000) set for non-EU immigrants, and a figure that is more than the country's average annual wage. Prospective immigrants who earn less may be able to come if they have other skills.

Change No. 2: DEFINITION OF SKILLED IMMIGRANTS

Currently, skilled immigrants are defined as those who possess a university degree. In future, it will only need the equivalent of Britain’s pre-university “A Levels.”

Change 3: CUTTING NET IMMIGRATION

Under the new rules, the UK seeks to cut "net immigration" from its current level of more than 200,000 people a year.

A target set by pre-Johnson governments to curb UK’s annual net immigration figure to below 100,000 a year has been abandoned.

FACT FILE: WHAT ARE A LEVELS?
Under the British education system, which is also followed by a number of countries, Advanced level qualifications (A levels) are subject-based qualifications which can lead to university, further study, training, or work.

For two years, a student can normally study three or more A levels. They’re usually assessed by a series of examinations.

A levels are the most common qualifications studied to get into higher education.

Is the UK’s new immigration plan cast in stone?

No. The plan has yet to be passed by the British Parliament. But with Johnson’s Conservatives commanding a large majority, it won’t be a camel-passing-through-the-needle’s-eye equation.

The plan is likely to breeze through a parliamentary vote. This has been bolstered by the healthy majority won by Johnson’s Conservatives in December's general elections.

Who are the so-called 'skilled workers'? How would this affect those aspiring to migrate to the UK?

Johnson’s government said there will be specific proposals for scientists, graduates, health care workers and those in the agricultural sector.

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Brexit supporters celebrate during a rally outside Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland as Britain left the European Union on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Image Credit: AP

What about 'low-skilled' workers?

There are no hard-and-fast rules or definition for them under the new plan.

And there is no specific immigration route for this specific category laid out.

How many EU citizens currently in the UK belong to 'low-skilled' workers?

According to British media reports, the "low-skilled" category accounts for about 70% of the more than 3 million EU citizens who have moved to the UK since 2004.

3million

number of EU citizens who have moved to the UK since 2004 (according to British government estimates)

They hold relatively low-paid jobs in sectors such as agriculture, healthcare and services/restaurants.

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A shopper walks past a shop selling tourist souvenirs on Oxford Street in London. The government data reinforces the view the economy has moved into a slower growth phase, at a pace well below its average in recent years. Image Credit: Bloomberg

What are the implications of the new immigration rules for service industries?

These are more obvious ones:

  • #1. Possible worker shortages. Employers in certain service-oriented industries have sounded alarm bells there will be worker shortages under the tighter immigration rules.
  • #2. The U.K. Homecare Association described the lack of provisions for low-paid immigrant workers in the proposals as "irresponsible.'' "Cutting off the supply of prospective care workers under a new migration system will pave the way for more people waiting unnecessarily in hospital or going without care,'' the group was quoted by Reuters as saying.

What is the government’s reaction to these concerns?

It's mostly fallen on deaf ears. And it's deliberate.

A British immigration policy paper states: “We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labor from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust.”

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Anti-Brexit protestors demonstrate outside the gates of Downing Street at Whitehall in London. Image Credit: Reuters

This is pushback from decades under EU. Many people who voted in 2016 for Britain to leave the EU believed that immigration had driven down wages and driven up joblessness among British-born workers.

Reports in the local media, quoting labour statistics, however, show there’s no hard evidence to back this claim.

What's the upside and downside of the new UK the points-based system?

UPSIDE
The Johnson government believes it will help curb the race-to-the-bottom of wages and resentments by a whole generation of British-born workers who end up jobless in their own country.

DOWNSIDE
Downside: However, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), an independent body consulted by the government on immigration plans, said in a study that compared to free movement of EU citizens, a points-based system would only “very slightly increase GDP per capita, productivity, and improve the public finances” of the UK.

MAC also claimed a points-based system would reduce Britain's economic growth.

What does the opposition say about the UK’s points-based system?

Diane Abbott, the immigration spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, called the proposed new system “flawed”.

“This isn't an 'Australian points-based system', which is a meaningless government soundbite,'' AP quoted her as saying.

“It’s a salary threshold system, which will need to have so many exemptions — for (the health service) — for social care and many parts of the private sector, that it will be meaningless,” she added.

What’s the Australia connection?

British PM Boris Johnson has a “deep and abiding love for Australia.”

His love of everything Australian probably emerged in 1983, during a “gap year” he spent Down Under, where he taught English and Latin at the Timbertop campus of Geelong Grammar, an elite boarding school.

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Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative party leader Boris Johnson poses with a sledgehammer, after hammering a "Get Brexit Done" sign into the garden of a supporter, in South Benfleet, Britain December 11, 2019 Image Credit: Reuters

Australia’s immigration system, dubbed as “Skillselect”, is points based.

Applicants receive points for criteria — such as from age, work experience, English language proficiency. Applicants must score a minimum of 60 points for their visa to be granted.

skilled points based system Australia
Image Credit: Department of Home Affairs, Australia

It's a flexible system, enabling Australia to address skills shortages and target specific professions.

Educated, young and adaptable migrants applicants, though they don't have a job lined up yet, may be offered a permanent visa.

The key lies in how “skilled” is defined. British PM Johnson and — to some extent, even US President Donald Trump — have been drawn towards this kind of merit-based system.