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Post-Brexit immigration

Post-Brexit immigration bill throws future of Covid-19 workers into jeopardy

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate in Parliament in London, Britain May 6, 2020.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate in Parliament in London, Britain May 6, 2020. © via REUTERS - UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
4 min

Lawmakers in the United Kingdom have given their initial backing to a new immigration bill to come into effect in 2021. The post-Brexit system would repeal EU freedom of movement and would be based on points and a minimum wage to encourage highly skilled workers to the country.

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The immigration bill, which passed in the House of Commons on Monday with 351 votes to 252, introduces a new framework for who can come to live in the UK. After the initial approval, it will face further debate.

The Brexit transition period ends on 31 December paving the way for the new immigration rules to come into effect. Irish citizens' immigration rights will remain.

The plan had been one of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Michael Gove's campaign promises during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Repeal EU freedom of movement

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the government's plans will lead to a "high skill" economy, putting workers from the EU on the same footing as those from outside the EU.

"It will end free movement and pave the way for a firmer, fairer and simpler system and will attract people we need to drive our country through the recovery stage of coronavirus, laying the foundation of a high wage, high skill productive economy," she told the BBC.

"We will no longer have the routes for cheap, low-skilled labour that obviously has dominated immigration and our labour market for far too long in this country," she said.

Points system

Within the government proposal for the new system, points would be awarded for meeting certain criteria, such as being able to speak English to a certain standard, having a job offer from an approved employer, and meeting a salary threshold of £25,600 (28 600 euros).

Other points could be awarded for certain qualifications and if there is a shortage in a particular occupation.

But critics said the coronavirus pandemic has changed public attitudes towards those considered "unskilled".

Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party voted against the bill, calling it "reckless, draconian and unforgiveable."

Speaking in the Commons, opposition home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the earnings of frontline workers do not reflect their contribution to society.

He listed shop workers, rubbish collectors, local government workers, National Health Service staff and care workers among those whose salaries were not in the income bracket proposed by the government.

"Those who clapped [for carers] are only too happy to vote through a bill that will send a powerful message to those same people - that they are not considered by this government to be skilled workers," he said.

EU workers set to lose out

Although a visa allowing doctors, nurses and health professionals from overseas to work in the NHS was introduced in March, it does not extend to other support services such as carer workers, cleaners and caterers.

Concerns have been raised for the legal status of millions European workers in the United Kingdom, whose futures were already thrown into doubt by the Brexit vote. Many of them work in the support fields labelled as "unskilled" by the government.

Recent statistics show around 13 percent of staff in the NHS are foreigners, and 5.5 percent are EU citizens.

Former immigration minister and Tory MP Caroline Nokes said that using the terms skilled and unskilled were too blunt.

"To be quite frank," she told BBC Radio 5, "they are meaningless and actually really rude to those people who we have been so reliant on, not just in the last eight weeks, but for a very, very long time in this country."

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