Great Britain

Boris Johnson scrambles to rescue 'points-based' immigration pledge after experts reject it as a 'soundbite'

A blueprint for cutting immigration after Brexit ordered by Boris Johnson has been branded “a disaster” by social care leaders and left his own promise of a ‘points-based’ system in tatters.

Downing Street is scrambling to rescue the prime minister’s high-profile pledge to adopt the Australian system after it was rejected by the independent migration advisory committee (MAC) – which branded it “a soundbite”.

Such a system – based on factors such as age, qualifications and previous study in the UK – risked repeating past “mistakes” and should be introduced for highly-skilled migrants only, the MAC said.

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Instead, it called for a minimum salary threshold for most workers offered a job – a system Mr Johnson sought to scrap – but set at £25,600 instead of the £30,000 proposed under Theresa May’s premiership.

The idea was savaged as “a disaster” by Nuffield Trust, a health think-tank, which warned: “These proposals would make it almost impossible for people to migrate to work in most frontline social care jobs.”

Business leaders, meanwhile, criticised the rejection of any regional variation in the proposed £25,600 floor, saying it would create problems for companies in poorer parts of the UK.

But Priti Patel, the home secretary, immediately hinted that the MAC’s report would be rejected – after its chairman, Professor Alan Manning, revealed he had already been sacked.

Describing its recommendation as merely “advisory”, Ms Patel claimed: “The British public voted for change when it comes to immigration and with that they have voted for an Australian-style points-based system.”

Meanwhile, the report itself made clear its proposed crackdown would cut economic growth – “compared to freedom of movement” – while delivering “very small increases” in GDP per head and productivity.

Labour accused the government of “tying itself in knots”, calling for “a system based on treating people and their families decently who come here with firm job offers, whatever their pay level”.

The prime minister had asked the MAC to explore how to introduce a points-based system immediately after taking office last summer, when he abandoned the mooted £30,000 salary floor.

He told MPs: “For years, politicians have promised the public an Australian-style points-based system. And today I will actually deliver on those promises.”

The pledge was one of six “guarantees” on the first page of the Conservative election manifesto, to replace free movement of EU nationals when the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020.

But the MAC found the previously points-based system, introduced for non-EU citizens by Tony Blair’s government in 2008 had proved “forgive the pun, pointless”.

Any assessment of characteristics such as age, qualifications and experience was “ineffective or overly complex”, it warned.

Instead, it recommended:

* Cutting the proposed salary threshold for skilled migrants from £30,000 to £25,600, with lower floors for teachers and NHS workers.

* Allowing “talented individuals” without a job offer to register their interest in coming to the UK with monthly invitations to apply.

* Lower rates for workers under 26, meaning in some occupations they would only need to earn £17,920.

Professor Manning pointed out that no other country used a points-based system as its “only route for work migration”.

And he warned of a boost for people-smugglers from many crackdown, saying: “That risk of people trafficking does go up. There needs to be labour market enforcement.”

He concluded: “Immigration hasn't really harmed people's employment opportunities or their wages but equally it hasn't really benefitted them very much either.”

Ending free movement would see “slightly reduced pressures" on hospitals, schools and social housing and “slightly increased pressure” on social care, according to the report.

But Natasha Curry, senior fellow at Nuffield Trust, said: “The changes would be a disaster for social care unless a new sector-specific route is added.

“Care homes and other providers already have climbing vacancy rates and our research shows tens of thousands more staff will be needed to meet the promise of fixing a system that leaves many languishing without support.”

The prime minister’s spokesman said he remained committed to the so-called Australian-style system, but declined to say if that would only be for some arrivals.

“We will set out those details in due course,” he told The Independent. The response is expected within the next few weeks. 

Professor Manning aid ministers had turned down his application to serve a second term as chair of the panel, but No 10 rejected any suggestion he had been dismissed.