What do election pledges on immigration mean for UK firms?

Employers hit by recent hikes in salary thresholds for sponsoring skilled workers will be poring over election manifestos for clues as to how they would affect filling skills gaps from abroad.

In April, Home Secretary James Cleverly raised minimum going rates and salary thresholds for Skilled Worker visas and removed a 20% discount for shortage occupations at the same time. So now to sponsor a programmer or software developer on a skilled worker visa, for instance, the minimum salary British employers must pay has leapt from £27,200 to £49,400 (based on a 37.5-hour week). This came on top of recent hikes in visa fees and the Immigration Health Surcharge (up from £624 per year to £1,035).

The Conservative Party manifesto has reiterated its recent immigration-curbing policies and promised to go much, much further, with annual, ever-tightening caps on immigration numbers.

As a party with a seemingly unassailable constant lead in opinion polls that they are determined not to jeopardise in any way, the Labour Party manifesto is rather thinner on details and concrete reassurances for British firms when it comes to immigration.

So, below is what we can infer from the election manifestos of the parties predicted the most MPs according to pollsters, which we present in order of currently predicted seats.

But first, when might businesses expect to see any changes and what can they do to mitigate them in the meantime?

Is there anything businesses can do to mitigate or influence work visa changes?

If, as looks increasingly likely with a consistent lead of over 20 points, the Labour Party forms the next government, it is unlikely any major immigration changes will be implemented before next Spring. Traditionally we are used to seeing most immigration measures implemented in March / April or sometimes October. The Labour Party has made clear it will rely on the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and other bodies for consultation on migration policy, which means policies implemented only after recommendations are made.

In the past, the MAC has usually called for evidence from stakeholders. I would advise any sectors feeling the pinch of skills shortages and wanting cheaper and more flexible immigration routes for hires to make submissions if possible.

In this recent article for Startups magazine, I detailed many tips for businesses that need to fill vacancies with non-resident talent in the meantime. These include obtaining a Scale-up sponsor licence, where possible, as well as using New Entrant and PHD discounts and hires on Youth Mobility Schemes and Graduate visas.

The Labour Party

The Labour manifesto’s section on “A fair and properly managed immigration system” appears in the “Kickstart economic growth” chapter – an acknowledgement of immigration’s crucial role in economic growth in a country beset with skills shortages.

With little detail in the manifesto for employers to rely on in any hiring plans, the main promise is a chilling vow to reduce net migration. Though this shouldn’t be too hard to achieve as it was already falling from a post-pandemic peak before recent measures to curb legal migration were implemented.

Despite tough talk of reducing reliance on immigration, the manifesto contains a commitment to empowering the MAC to make informed decisions – which would suggest a return to consultations with stakeholders and evidence-based immigration policy again.

There is a commitment to “reform the points-based immigration system so that it is fair and properly managed, with appropriate restrictions on visas, and by linking immigration and skills policy” which suggests a wide-ranging review.

Absent from the manifesto are recent press briefings that Labour would ask the MAC to re-examine April’s salary threshold hikes for sponsoring a Skilled Worker or a partner/spouse to join you on a family visa. You would hope these changes would be examined again as part of the promised “reform of the points-based immigration system.”

Employers who “abuse the visa system” or breach employment law will be barred from hiring workers from abroad, the Labour manifesto adds. Sponsors are currently obliged to adhere to good employment practices to sponsor non-resident staff, so nothing much new here, unless there is greater enforcement by the Home Office.

“The days of a sector languishing endlessly on immigration shortage lists with no action to train up workers will come to an end,” the Labour manifesto vows, which would imply if anything like the Shortage Occupation List returns to help firms facing chronic skills shortages, it will be very different and unlikely to include a 20% discount on the going rate of pay – something the Labour Party has often criticised.

It will be interesting to see what promises of "linking immigration and skills policy" and ending "long-term reliance on overseas workers" mean in practice and whether the onus will fall on the state or businesses to train more resident workers – something perhaps more difficult for startups and SME’s.

Elsewhere the manifesto adds: “we will establish Skills England to bring together business, training providers and unions with national and local government to ensure we have the highly trained workforce needed to deliver Labour’s Industrial Strategy. Skills England will formally work with the Migration Advisory Committee to make sure training in England accounts for the overall needs of the labour market.”

All of this suggests immigration and training policies will be part of a long-term industrial strategy.

The Conservative Party

The Conservative Party manifesto promises not just to reduce immigration, but to “introduce a binding, legal cap on migration, set on work and family visas so public services are protected whilst we bring the skills our businesses and the NHS needs. The cap will fall every year of the next Parliament and cannot be breached.”

Despite recent increases to salary thresholds which will already preclude many from coming to the UK, there is a promise to “raise the Skilled Worker threshold and Family income requirement with inflation automatically.” Businesses would only be able to sponsor staff on Skilled Worker visas if they were paid above the median wage for the occupation they are in, which would continue to hamper startups, SME’s and firms not paying London wages while looking to fill more junior roles from abroad.

There is a promise to increase visa fees further, even though the UK is already an outlier with higher immigration fees than other comparable countries. 

“We will go further, in line with other countries, by requiring migrants to undergo a health check in advance of travel and increasing their Immigration Health Surcharge or requiring them to buy health insurance if they are likely to be a burden on the NHS,” the manifesto promises. The health surcharge currently adds £1,035 per year per person to the cost of a UK visa, or £776 a year for children, students and Youth Mobility visas. The manifesto vows to “remove the student discount to the Immigration Health Surcharge.” All this would likely make the UK the most expensive country in the world for immigration.

There is no mention of tinkering with the Graduate visa following a MAC review recently ordered by James Cleverly which recommended against scrapping the postgraduate work visa. However, the Conservative manifesto contains a warning that “courses that have excessive drop-out rates or leave students worse off than had they not gone to university will be prevented from recruiting students by the universities regulator.” Recent measures such as further restricting postgraduate students’ ability to bring dependants to the UK appear to be already reducing the popularity of the UK as a destination for international students.

All these changes while simultaneously introducing an ever tighter hard annual cap on work visas would likely exacerbate skills shortages, especially for smaller firms and those in regions outside the capital with lower salary bands. So much for “levelling-up” regions. In fact, as the Institute of Government pointed out “while the phrase remains, it is striking how far the ‘levelling up’ agenda has been hollowed out” of this manifesto.

The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats also have the luxury of making promises unlikely to be tested by government in the next few years. Their rather detailed election manifesto when it comes to immigration includes replacing salary thresholds with a “merit-based system” for work visas. As well as reversing salary thresholds to hire talent, they propose reversing recent increases in the salary British citizens and residents would have to earn to live with a partner in the UK on a family visa. There is no mention of reducing migration levels.

The Lib Dem manifesto promises to remedy “damaging new rules” which “mean British employers can’t recruit the people they need, and families are separated by unfair, complex visa requirements.” They would “replace the Conservatives’ arbitrary salary threshold with a more flexible merit-based system for work visas, with the relevant department working with employers in each sector to address specific needs as part of a long-term workforce strategy that also focuses on education and training to address skills gaps from within the UK.” 

Interestingly, the manifesto says that Lib Dems would “Transfer policy-making over work visas and overseas students out of the Home Office and into other departments” and “extend the participation of devolved administrations in the development of the evidence base for UK-wide policy on work permits and student visas, helping ensure rules are sensitive to the skills needs of every corner of the UK and every sector of the economy.” For a long time many, including the Scottish National Party and various business sectors, have called for different regions to have some control over some immigration levers to facilitate filling local skills shortages.

The manifesto says EU citizens with pre-settled status should be automatically granted settled status and given a physical ID rather than just a digital record to make it easier to demonstrate their rights.

The manifesto promises to “establish a firewall to prevent public agencies from sharing personal information with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement and repeal the immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act.”

The Lib Dems would also expand the Youth Mobility Scheme to extend it to EU countries on a reciprocal basis, increase the age limit to 35, abolish the reciprocal visa scheme’s fees and extend the length of the visa from two to three years for all countries taking part.

The party would also lift the ban on asylum seekers working if they have been waiting for a decision for more than three months.

The manifesto also promises an overhaul of the Immigration Rules to make them "simpler, clearer and fairer" – a promise I have heard many times over the years from different parties, but something that is long overdue.