THE end of free movement is a historic moment, as for the first time in decades, all labour migration to the UK will be processed through the UK immigration system.

However, the unprecedented turmoil of the past year and the degree of change involved in leaving the EU means that preparations for this new immigration system seem to have fallen by the wayside. 

Analysis by a new independent think tank, Migration Policy Scotland, finds a concerning lack of preparedness on the part of both government and business for the new immigration system, which could further impede economic recovery.

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Free movement ends today and those nationals from the EEA or Switzerland currently in the UK have until June 30 to apply to stay under the EU Settlement Scheme. 

Failure to do so will mean the loss of their right to stay in the UK. Visitors to the UK from the EEA or Switzerland will still be able to come and go without a visa for short trips and holidays. And Irish citizens will be exempt as part of the Common Travel Area.  But the big change is that EEA and Swiss nationals will no longer be able to come to the UK freely to work or study. 

Instead, those coming to work will have to qualify to do so under the new immigration system under either the Global Talent route, the Skilled Worker route, a smattering of temporary worker routes (covering specialist occupations in the religious, artistic or sporting fields) or under the Season Agricultural Worker Scheme. 

The key route is the Skilled Worker one. This allows those with a job offer that meets Home Office skill and salary thresholds (£25,600) to come to work in the UK, as long as the prospective migrant speaks English at a required level and the prospective employer holds a sponsorship licence.

 One difficulty with the new system lies with the additional requirements entailed in acquiring and maintaining a sponsorship licence. 

The UK Government initially recognised the challenge in extending the employer sponsorship system to include all labour migration to the UK. 

Back in 2018, proposals included review and reform of sponsorship to make it less daunting for employers to navigate, not least because failure to navigate the system correctly raises the prospect of fines and other penalties.

 However, changes to the system have been minimal. The administrative and cost burden of the sponsorship system for Skilled Workers will pose more difficulty for smaller businesses, which are likely to have less human resources capacity. 

This disadvantages Scotland more than other UK nations as Scotland has the highest proportion of Small to Medium Enterprises (28 per cent of Scottish Businesses employ fewer than 50 workers, compared to 23% in England). 
The differential impact of the proposed post-Brexit immigration system has been a subject of complaint from the Scottish Government. 

Having a single salary threshold apply across the whole of the UK means it will be areas with higher salaries that will find it easiest to continue to recruit migrant labour. 

In broad terms that means London and the South East of England will find the wage criteria easiest to meet, it is often more rural, remote locations that will struggle most. Requests for the new system to accommodate regional differences have not been welcomed by the Home Office for now. 

However, the new system does carry potential for more regional variation through the use of shortage occupation lists.  Jobs recognised as being in shortage by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) can be included on shortage occupation lists to allow for migrant workers to be recruited at lower salaries (minimum £20,040). 

Within this system, devolved nation-specific shortage occupation lists allow for recognition of regional differences, but much depends on whether active use is made of this facility. 

Tke UK Government has held off recognising the MAC’s shortage occupation list recommendations in the face of labour market uncertainty.

Labour demand is currently difficult to predict, but indications are that neither government nor businesses are well-prepared to use the new system.  

Critics of the UK Government approach have suggested the impetus behind the new system is political, rather than economic.

Repeated inquiries into the impacts of migration on the UK economy and labour market have found generally positive, if often marginal, effects. 

Migrant labour complements rather than supplements the domestic workforce, and adds to innovation and productivity. The irony is that this restrictive turn gets under way as net EEA migration has been steadily declining for years, Attitudes to immigration have also been softening. 

In Scotland, where demographic challenges are more pronounced and rural sustainability is an issue, this should be the moment to be working on proactive approaches to migration. 

Indeed, the UK’s new immigration system that focuses on “the brightest and the best” as determined by higher salaries seems rather outdated after a year in which we have all discovered the crucial role of “key” workers, many of whom are on lower pay. Migration Policy Scotland recommends that sponsorship be reviewed with a view to becoming both lighter touch and lower cost, as the system beds in and employers new to the system will need to familiarise themselves with it. 

Dr Sarah Kyambi is Director of Migration Policy Scotland