The most significant changes to the UK’s immigration system since the Immigration Act 1971 were set out in a Government Command Paper in March 2006 and are due to be phased in mid-2007. Such changes could have a dramatic impact on businesses ability to employ foreign nationals in the UK.

The Command Paper is part of the Government’s five year strategy for asylum and immigration which stemmed from an initial review in April 2004. This review highlighted that the Immigration Rules had become something of a legislative mishmash of over 80 separate schemes ranging from familiar work permit applications to diverse programmes such as the Japanese Youth Exchange and Representatives of Overseas Media Organisations schemes. The review also suggested that the current immigration system does not effectively identify and attract migrants of the most benefit to the UK, is overly complex, subjective and bureaucratic and requires substantial improvement to ensure compliance and reduce abuse.

The main feature of the Government’s proposal is therefore to remove all of the existing routes of entry and replace them with a single, objective five-tier points-based system. This will be a “one-stop-shop” whereby prospective migrants will complete an online self-assessment before making an application (accompanied by independently verifiable documentation) to a British Consular Post.

Points will be awarded for attributes aimed at predicting a migrant’s success in the UK labour market and will be determined by the Tier under which they apply. There will also be control factors which will help assess whether an individual is likely to comply with the conditions of their stay.

Tier 1 – is designed for individuals who have the highest skills as well as those with money to invest in the UK’s economy. They will not require an offer of employment and will have unrestricted access to the UK labour market to search for an appropriate position.

Tier 2 – is aimed at skilled workers with a job offer from a UK employer. In addition, the job must be in an occupation which has been identified as being in acute short supply by a Skills Advisory Body or which has passed a test to demonstrate that there are no suitable UK or EEA applicants. This Tier will also incorporate intra-company transfers.

Tier 3 – will allow a limited number of individuals to work in specific low skilled employment. However, owing to the accession of the ‘new’ EU member states on 1 May 2004 (which according to figures published in August 2006 has already seen 447,000 individuals register to work in the UK) and the continually expanding EU (e.g. Bulgaria and Romania are scheduled to join in 2007), the Government does not believe that there will be a long-term future for such schemes.

Tier 4 – will cover students who come to the UK to work or study at an approved institution.

Tier 5 – will incorporate current youth mobility and cultural exchange programmes to enable individuals to work in the UK to support themselves whilst they pursue primarily non-economic objectives.

Under the new system, employers and institutions bringing migrants to the UK will be designated as sponsors and will be given a rating which will determine the number of points awarded to the applicant. All individuals applying under Tiers 2-5 will require a certificate of sponsorship from a sponsor that has been pre-approved by the Home Office. This certificate will act as an assurance that the applicant has the ability to do a particular job although there are reservations as to how this will be achieved in practice.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this wholesale shake-up has been met with a number of criticisms. Notwithstanding the cost implications, there are concerns that applications will now be made abroad. This could result in inconsistent decisions between the 164 entry clearance posts worldwide unless clear procedures, substantial training and IT systems/support are first put in place. It is also feared that the strict criteria will be too inflexible and that individuals who do not fit neatly into a Tier will be rejected regardless of the overall strength of their application. Finally, despite its flaws, the current system generally enables UK employers to employ the foreign employees they want when they want.

Whilst seeking to improve the present arrangements and stamp out abuse is admirable, trying to fit so many distinct immigration categories into five single tiers is arguably attempting to push a square peg into a round hole. Although it is intended that businesses will still be able to recruit the individuals that they need, there will clearly be casualties caused by changing the system so dramatically with a good deal of work still required to ensure that targets, objectives and procedures are in place to meet the Government’s ambitious plans for implementation.

This article was first published in ExpatNews.