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Australia's points-based migration system explained

Prime minister Boris Johnson spoke recently about pushing for the adoption of an Australian-style points-based system – a key promise of the Leave campaign – in order to recalibrate the UK’s approach to skilled and unskilled migration

Johnson intends to commission the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the Australian system and report back on the feasibility of its adoption and effectiveness by the end of 2019.

Now that Johnson has taken up the role of prime minister, is an Australian-style points-based system closer to becoming a reality? How does it work? And how would it affect UK businesses in practice?

The ‘189’

Known in Australia simply as a ‘189’ visa, the application requires individuals to have a minimum of 65 points (based on factors including age, English language ability, skilled employment experience and educational qualifications to name but a few) before lodging an expression of interest. Successful applicants are then invited to apply for a permanent residence visa by Australia’s Department of Home Affairs and are immediately eligible to work upon arrival in Australia.

The higher the points scored, the more likely the individual will be selected.

This is hardly a “democratising” of the immigration system and so it is always surprising when people compare the Australian system, which evidently favours skilled migrants, to the green card lottery of the United States.

Cynics of the Australian system are also quick to point out that awarding points for English language skills is an ostensibly meritocratic way to exclude applicants from non-English speaking countries.

This favourable treatment of skilled migrants poses a problem for an economy like Australia (as it would in the UK) as there is desperate need for unskilled workers such as truck drivers, front line aged care workers and child carers because those who are able to fill these roles struggle to score the points necessary for the ‘189’ visa. To compound matters further, many skilled migrants struggle to find work on arrival in Australia as their skills and experience do not meet those actually needed in the job market.

The UK faces similar issues to Australia and there is no denying that our country is suffering from a real shortage in skilled and unskilled labour. Unemployment it at an all-time low of 3.8% and there are over 100,000 unfilled vacancies in the NHS.

It is difficult to see major differences between the Australian system and the current Tier 2 (General) system for skilled workers in the UK, albeit there is less of an administrative burden on employers in Australia.

The added administrative burden that UK businesses face only brings the skills shortages into sharper focus. It is not only costly for small businesses to recruit skilled migrant workers here but the system for demonstrating to the Home Office that there aren’t any suitable settled workers to fill these positions is both burdensome and ineffectual.

“Open for Business”?

Does the current immigration system deters businesses from setting up in the UK? The answer is undeniably ‘yes’.

Whilst the Conservative Party (and the Labour Mayor of London) are loudly declaring the UK “Open for Business” there continues to be questionable choices made on immigration policy.

The sudden decision to replace the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa with the less-than-functional Tier 1 Investor visa means the UK is losing vital tech talent to the likes of Canada, Australia and the USA. Further, there is talk of increasing the minimum salary for skilled workers from the current £30,000 per annum for a 39 hour week to £36,000 per annum.

Given that the average salary for a registered nurse is around the £25,000 mark and there are now in excess of 40,000, such a move would just be counter-productive to solving even this issue that the country’s biggest employer faces!

There is little doubt that the UK immigration system is not fit for purpose. The inconsistencies and uncertainty (not to mention the costs) are unattractive and unwelcoming.

Johnson may yet forge ahead with an Australian-style system but whatever changes are made, these must properly addresses the requirements for both skilled and unskilled labour as both are much-needed to ensure that the UK economy can adapt and grow in the midst of a challenging but ultimately opportunity-filled environment.

Philip Leonard is a trainee solicitor at Oury Clark solicitors.


Originally published in Economia on 19 August 2019.