Podcasts: Analysis

Why Keir Starmer is embracing a points-based immigration system

The UK is on its fourth points-based system – but it’s no such thing

Madeleine Sumption Peter William Walsh
22 November 2022, 11.19am

Keir Starmer in 2020, when another future was possible

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Dominic Dudley/Alamy Stock Photo

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Keir Starmer has today committed himself to a points-based immigration system. In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry this morning, the leader of the UK’s largest opposition party said that he wants to keep the Conservative government’s system, while accusing British industry of “immigration dependency”.

So what is a points-based system, and why does Starmer want to adopt the immigration policy of a government he wants to replace?

British politicians have long promised a range of benefits that points-based systems would bring. They will, the public has been told, admit the ‘best and the brightest’. These systems will be flexible in changing economic conditions. They will be rational, transparent and efficient. And they will offer the holy grail of immigration management: control.

A variety of opinion polls, from 2006 to 2019, have consistently showed strong backing for PBSs: anywhere from 59% to 77% of respondents support them.

In January 2021, the UK rolled out its much-vaunted ‘Australian-style’ points-based immigration system. This was a flagship policy for politicians who supported Brexit, from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson. They sold it as a strategy to ‘take back control’ of migration after the end of free movement following the UK’s departure from the European Union.

But has the reality of the post-Brexit points system delivered on politicians’ promises?

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why points systems sound like a good idea to so many people, but likely explanations include an impression of scientific rationality in the quantified eligibility criteria; an impression of meritocracy, since they promise to admit the people who score highest on the ‘test’; and the association with Australia, with its reputation for being tough on migration issues.

Although presented as a fundamentally new policy approach, the 2021 system was merely the latest of several initiatives to bring points into the UK’s labour migration policy. In fact, the system it replaced was already known officially as ‘The Points-Based System’. Other supposedly Australian-style immigration routes using points had been introduced in 2008 and 2002.

Politicians have trumpeted benefits that do not seem to be particularly valid empirically or theoretically, and the public willingly agree

Points systems award prospective migrants a set number of points for characteristics such as language proficiency and years of education or skilled work experience. In some, candidates qualify if they earn enough points to meet a set threshold; in others, the highest-scoring candidates are selected.

This typically means that there is some flexibility in how to qualify, so that a person with higher skills in one area (such as language) can make up for a deficit in another (such as skilled work experience). The best-known points systems, including the Australian one, do not require a job offer, although some policy designs, such as Austria’s, do require one.

Strikingly, neither the post-Brexit points-based system nor the one it replaced had much in common with the Australian-style system that Prime Minister Johnson and other Brexit campaigners said the UK needed. Apart from the fact that it involves points, the new system lacks any of the characteristics usually associated with such systems. For example, unlike the Australian system and unlike an earlier variant introduced in the UK in the 2000s, the new system offers very little flexibility in how people can qualify for a work visa and applicants cannot qualify without a job offer.

In fact, if you look below the surface it becomes clear that the UK’s most recent points-based system is actually just a conventional employer-led system, where applicants must have a job offer and meet certain other criteria. An arbitrary number of purely cosmetic points are attached to these requirements.

This raises the question of why British politicians appear so fond of talking about points-based immigration systems, even implementing systems that bear little resemblance to such systems as they are commonly understood.

When you look in any detail at what points systems actually do – and how they compare to the most readily available counterfactual, namely an employer-driven work permit system with no points attached – it is hard to argue that they really offer what UK politicians have said they will.

Points-based systems are relatively technocratic tools that can offer some modest advantages in specific circumstances. If they admit workers without a job offer, as many such systems do, they can provide a way to bring more intermediate and highly skilled people to work in a country – albeit with a greater risk of skilled workers’ unemployment in the short term. The selection criteria too crude to identify the very highly skilled, however.

Points systems enable governments to offer flexibility in how migrants qualify for work visas and may also reduce migrants’ dependence on their employers. But they do not necessarily offer governments greater control. In fact, traditional points systems, which remove the requirement of a job offer, arguably give slightly less control, by reducing opportunities to regulate the terms and conditions of the job the employer is offering.

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The seemingly minor benefits of points systems thus appear to be at odds with the substantial political and public support they have received. Politicians have trumpeted benefits that do not seem to be particularly valid empirically or theoretically, and the public willingly agree.

The history of points systems in the UK over the past two decades suggests that while policymakers like the idea of points-based systems and what they represent – control and scientific rationality – they are rather more ambivalent about actually having one in practice. In addition to repeatedly announcing new points systems, the government has also repeatedly gutted them of their content.

It thus appears that a major part of the appeal of points-based systems in the UK, especially in the most recent iteration, has been symbolic. The post-Brexit system brings the tension between the politics of points systems and their substantive effects to its natural resolution: politicians are free to talk about the idea of a points-based system without the drawbacks of genuinely having one.

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