hrlaw@foxwilliams puts some context behind the headlines and summarises the developments to watch out for in the weeks and months ahead.
Spring was in Nigel Farage’s step as he arrived for his party’s conference, proclaiming that immigration is the “number one issue” for UK voters, who will deliver an “earthquake” at the European Parliament elections this year. Mass immigration has rendered British towns and cities “unrecognisable” and “done great damage to the cohesion of our society and the wellbeing of working people”, he says.
In their workplaces, though, decision-makers are taking a different view. Far from being a “number one issue”, immigration is often an almost-afterthought until it gets difficult. At that point, sympathy and frustration aligns with the other side of the immigration debate where business leaders think that law and process aimed at control just damage competitiveness and flexibility.
What has been happening, and why does it matter?
The European scene: Switzerland’s referendum delivered a wafer-thin 50.3% majority in favour of immigration quotas – in the process invalidating the bilateral treaty with the EU which mirrors free movement rights and labour market access for EEA nationals. In a country where a quarter of the population is immigrant, many argue that free labour market access has driven down wages and put pressure on public services, infrastructure and housing. In practice, nothing much can change before 2017. But there are portents for the UK.
Mark Harper, the UK immigration minister resigned…he thought it was the “right thing to do”, having apparently failed to follow the procedures formulated and enforced by his department for employers to check employee’s documents in a prescribed way to prevent illegal working, and employed an illegal cleaner. Rather like Baroness Scotland before him, in fact. Far from being gentler with other employers who get it wrong, the Home Office has dramatically stepped up unannounced inspections and compliance visits on employer sponsors. Are you ready to be inspected?
Net migration has increased to more than double the Government’s target. Just-released figures to September 2013 show a jump to 212,000 in the year, further than ever from the target of less than 100,000 by the end of this Parliament. Ominously for the Government, Romanian and Bulgarian immigration had almost trebled in a year – and this before labour market access opened to them on January 1st. “Out of control!”, said Nigel Farage. Well, as always with immigration, the reality is more complex. More EU citizens arrived – especially those from poorer southern countries – but non-EEA immigration, where the Government still exercises control through the Points Based System and other routes under the Immigration Rules, fell by more than 10%. Mark Harper’s successor, James Brokenshire, batted away calls to abandon the target and insisted the priority remains “bringing net migration down”.
The Immigration Bill 2014 has reached Committee stage in the House of Lords. It is due to receive assent and become law this Spring. Key provisions include compulsory private landlord checks along the lines of employer checks, a dramatic reduction of the grounds of appeal against immigration decisions from 17 to 4, curbing the definition of the public interest when assessing the scope of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in immigration cases (right to private and family life) and charging immigrants for NHS access.
Points Based System / employment immigration changes include the publication of revised guidance for Tiers 2 & 5, the abandonment of the old UK Border Agency website and a questionable attempt to make it more “accessible” on GOV.UK (some more work needed there, we think) and changes to salary rates in the Codes of Practice for skilled employees affecting Tier 2 (General) Restricted Certificates of Sponsorship, some redefinition of healthcare and engineering roles and a shift in allocation periods. In April, changes are expected to prevention of illegal working compliance protocols to “simplify” checks.
Top tips for employers include:
- Make sure you are using the latest Points Based System guidance, SOC codes and have planned for Restricted CoS applications to take account of changes in the coming weeks
- Review your sponsor compliance and HR systems, and get advice if in doubt – the Home Office is stepping up unannounced inspections
- Watch out for new guidance on the Prevention of Illegal working so that you don’t get caught out when the Home Office “simplifies” things for you
- Immigration may not excite you as much as it does Mr Farage. But even if it is not your “number one”, it needs to be up there with the other important issues if you employ migrants. Put it there, before the Home Office comes calling.