In Depth

The pros and cons of a points-based immigration system

Priti Patel ‘pushing for early introduction’ of Australian-style approach

A points-based immigration system could be launched two years earlier than originally planned.

Home Secretary Priti Patel will tell her cabinet colleagues that Britain should implement an Australian-style system before the end of 2020, to coincide with the end of Britain's transition period with the EU, Sky News reports.

During the general election campaign last year, the Conservatives promised to cut “overall” immigration if they were to win power.

Patel pledged: “We will reduce immigration overall while being more open and flexible to the highly skilled people we need, such as scientists and doctors.” 

Yesterday, Boris Johnson said the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system will put “people before passports” and make the UK “able to attract the best talent from around the world, wherever they may be”.

However, there is already opposition to an accelerated introduction. The Confederation of British Industry says that companies need “at least two years to adapt to any new immigration system”.

People who want to move to and work in Australia “generally need to be pursuing an occupation that is in demand”, says the BBC. Applicants are assigned points based on a number of professional and personal characteristics, with higher points awarded for more desirable traits.

So what are the pros and cons of adopting a similar approach in the UK?


Increasing wages

A points-based system can “help lower immigration rates and ensure that the immigrants who do come are highly skilled and less likely to need public assistance”, according to US government-funded news agency Voice of America.

High-profile champions of this theory include President Donald Trump, who has criticised what he sees as the “very low-skill immigration system” in place prior to his election, claiming that it was “issuing record numbers of green cards to low-wage immigrants” and driving wages down.


Michael Gove claimed in 2016 that a points-based system “is fair to everyone”, noting that Britain already operates such a scheme for non-EU migrants - although anti-EU campaigners seem “strangely unaware of its existence”, says The Guardian. 

Gove added: “At the moment, we discriminate against people from outside the European Union, which is plain unfair.”


According to an analysis of Canada’s points-based immigration system by the US Library of Congress, one of the major advantages of the system is that it is “largely transparent”, as “potential applicants can review the selection criteria to determine whether they may be able to attain sufficient points to reach the pass mark of 67 points”.

As a result, applicants arguably have a better chance of success, because they know exactly what skills they need.

Chance for the Conservatives to ‘keep their promises’

Supporters of a points-based system say such a scheme could help politicians to keep their promises on immigration, following years of failure by Tory governments to hit net migration reduction targets. 

Ahead of the election, Patel shied away from giving any specific targets for her pledged immigration cut, but said the overall number would be lower if the Tories were elected.

“We will reduce immigration overall while being more open and flexible to the highly skilled people we need, such as scientists and doctors,” said Patel.


Large-scale data collection

German research institute IZA World of Labor suggests that developing a points-based system “requires large and detailed data collection on the immigration process and on immigrants’ performance over time” - a process that is “expensive” but “essential”.

“Data need to be regularly reviewed to test whether the point system is achieving its objectives or needs to be revised,” the research group says. “For example, after an evaluation in 2006 Australia in 2008 substantially reduced the ability of international students already in the country to gain permanent status.”

Might not reduce migration

It is unclear what effect Australia's skills-seeking system - which moved away from a less-selective approach almost two decades ago - has had on migrant numbers, as the country has different policies and quotas to the UK.

Australia admits about twice the number of migrants per head of existing population than the UK currently does.

In Europe, Norway and Switzerland are both outside the EU - and both have higher immigration than the UK.

System open to abuse

Former prime minister Theresa May warned her successor Boris Johnson that an Australian-style points-based system could be open to “abuse” and would not control numbers.

“I would simply urge the home secretary and the Home Office to look very carefully at the lessons that have been learned in the past in relation to points-based system, which in themselves are not an answer to controlling immigration and can allow abuse to take place,” she told the House of Commons last month. 

May also said she was “a little concerned about some references to the press” to a system of “regional visas - or the ability for somebody to be given a visa if they're going to work in a particular part of the country”.


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