Dr Rebecca Zahn details the new issues organisations may face with immigration post-Brexit
After a lengthy journey through parliament, the Immigration Act 2020 was signed into law on 11 November. The act makes a number of significant changes to the UK’s immigration system, particularly with regard to EU citizens. The new rules will apply from 1 January 2021. The act has made few headlines since its adoption but any civil society organisations who employ and/or work with EU citizens should familiarise themselves with the new rules. These rules will apply regardless of whatever trade deal may or may not be negotiated between the UK and the EU before the end of the year.
The act does two main things. First, it ends the influence of EU law on the UK immigration system. Concretely, this means that free movement of EU citizens into the UK ends at 11pm on 31 December 2020. There are also particular concerns that the act may have a negative impact on the continuing protections for victims of trafficking; for asylum seekers; and for victims of crime due to those rights’ origins in EU law. Second, the act introduces a points-based immigration system.
The act is not retrospective, ie those EU citizens who are in the UK before 31 December 2020 can continue to live and work in the country provided they apply for settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme before 30 June 2021. To be clear, they must apply to the Settlement Scheme before this deadline, or risk being in the UK illegally and all of the consequences of this in a hostile immigration environment. Statistics show that, whilst many EU citizens have now got their settled status, many have yet to do so, and this includes many vulnerable and disadvantaged people who will need support and advice to apply. Voluntary sector organisations could play a key role by ensuring that their EU staff, service users and communities know about the scheme and get the support that they need to apply, so that they have safeguarded their right of residence.
The EU Settlement Scheme does not apply to Irish citizens. The Immigration Act preserves the special position of Irish citizens in UK immigration law. Irish citizens can therefore continue to enter, work and live in the UK without having to go through the immigration process.
Any other EU citizens who want to come to the UK to work or study from 1 January 2021 onwards will be treated like applicants from any other country and must fulfil the requirements of the new points-based immigration system introduced by the Immigration Act. The precise details of the new system are not contained in the act itself but will be set out in the Immigration Rules. The rules are complex. There are special routes for students, highly skilled workers (Global Talent visas), and temporary visas for seasonal agricultural workers. In all cases, visas need to be applied for in advance of arrival in the UK and applications incur a substantial fee. The abolition of free movement may have a particular impact on the agriculture sector and on our food supplies. Restricting the numbers of seasonal agricultural workers and subjecting them to a costly and complicated visa application process may have knock-on effects for food supply chains if farmers cannot recruit sufficient numbers of workers to harvest produce.
All other EU citizens can apply either for a Skilled Worker visa or a Skilled Worker: Health and Care visa. In both categories, applications need to be made in advance of coming to the UK. Applications will incur an application fee (normally between £610 to £1,408) and, for stays of over six months, a surcharge to access the National Health Service (£624 per year; this does not apply to the health and care worker route). Workers will have to collect a minimum number of points by (1) evidencing their English language skills; and (2) having a job offer within an eligible occupation from a Home Office-licenced sponsor. The job offer must be at a pre-determined skill level (A-levels/Highers or above) and meet a minimum salary threshold. The minimum salary threshold for skilled workers is set at £25,600 and for health and care workers at £20,480. Significant concerns have been raised around the impact on the care sector where jobs do not easily match onto the Home Office’s pre-determined skill levels and salary thresholds. Voluntary sector organisations have already raised alarm bells about an impending workforce crisis in social care.
Although a relatively short piece of legislation, the Immigration Act will have wide-reaching implications. While the precise details of the post-Brexit Immigration Rules are still being worked out, civil society organisations should use the next few weeks and months to reach out to EU citizens currently in the UK who may not yet have registered under the EU Settlement Scheme to encourage them to safeguard their rights.
Dr Rebecca Zahn, is a senior lecturer at Strathclyde University, and one of the lead academics of the Civil Society Brexit Project, funded by Legal Education Foundation, which provides expert information and advice on Brexit for civil society organisations in Scotland