With the general election now imminent, one topic that has been front and centre of the major parties’ manifestos and policy announcements is legal immigration. A key issue for employers, in particular, are proposals which relate to the circumstances in which an overseas national will be able to seek permission to live and work in the UK.

Net migration was estimated to be 764,000 in 2022. In a bid to push down the net migration figure, the current UK government (at the time of writing) sought to reduce legal immigration, earlier this year, by making a number of changes, in particular to the Skilled Worker route  Most significant of these changes was the increase to the minimum salary threshold that is required for this type of visa and the reduction of the types of role that can be sponsored. 

In their manifesto, the Conservatives have proposed further limits to immigration. If re-elected they would introduce an ‘immigration lock’, a binding legal cap on migration in respect of work and family visas. Increased restrictions on the ability to obtain visas could create difficulties for employers who rely heavily on overseas workers and potentially for those who have an urgent requirement to hire an overseas national. However, similar caps have been in place previously for work visas – before 2021, there was a monthly and annual cap on the number of applications for Skilled Worker visas (previously called Tier 2 visas) which could be made from individuals based overseas. This cap was suspended as part of a number of changes to the immigration system after Brexit.

In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats have proposed an overhaul of the current immigration system including a proposal to replace salary thresholds with a ‘flexible merit-based system’ and to introduce a reciprocal EU-wide youth mobility scheme for people 35 years old and under.

Wider reforms to the immigration system are also set out in the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) manifesto, in which it has proposed reviewing the immigration rules and expanding shortage occupation lists with the intention of giving businesses access to the labour that they require. The SNP also proposes that migration becomes a devolved issue for Scotland which, they say, would allow it to be tailored to the country’s specific demographic and economic needs.

Labour’s proposals are different again, with a focus on training and upskilling British workers to reduce reliance on overseas labour.  Whilst there is a reference to ‘appropriate restrictions on visas’ in its manifesto, Labour otherwise relies on proposals aimed at increasing training for skills shortage areas in the UK to reform the current points-based system. 

As part of this, Labour proposes to link the Migration Advisory Committee (an advisory non-departmental public body, that advises the government on immigration issues) to the Industrial Strategy Council and Skills England (bodies responsible for industrial and skills strategy), with the intention that shortages in the labour market could be identified and responded to in a joined-up way.  The speed at which gaps in skills shortages could be plugged remains to be seen but, even if ultimately successful, it seems unlikely that this would provide an immediate solution to the recruitment challenges that employers often face.

A focus on making the most of the UK’s resident workforce is arguably not a new concept albeit, we have seen it taken different forms previously. Most notably, before its abolition at the start of 2021, UK employers who wanted to sponsor non-settled workers as Skilled Workers had first to satisfy the ‘Resident Labour Market Test’. This required employers intending to hire from outside of the UK workforce to advertise the vacancy in prescribed ways in order to demonstrate that no one in the UK (nor in the EU at that time) could do the job before they could then progress with an overseas recruitment process. 

Labour has also announced an intention to place bans on hiring foreign workers for employers who are found to be in breach employment law (such as failing to pay national minimum wage). Currently, employers in breach can have their ability to sponsor overseas workers suspended or revoked or they may not be able to get a sponsor licence for these purposes. It is not clear how Labour would change this current regime but possibilities that might be considered could include longer bans for employers or more effective enforcement.

For employers who regularly recruit from overseas or who face labour shortages in the UK, there is, of course, some uncertainty as to what the future of the UK immigration system holds and it will be a case of ‘wait and see’ following the general election and the shape that eventual policies might take going forward.