Virginia, US

As was always inevitable, the need to control migration is proving to be a key line of attack for the people arguing the UK should leave the European Union (EU), ahead of the 23 June referendum.

The Leave campaign, those who want us out of the EU, argue that staying in and maintaining free movement of EU nationals will mean the UK’s population could raise by as much as 5,000,000 by 2030, a figure that their opponents dispute.

It isn’t for me to comment on the veracity of that figure but I am struck by their solution. Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and their friends in the Leave campaign have set out their plans for a fairer, more humane immigration system.  A system that would do more for the economy if, as they hope, the UK leaves the European Union.

Their solution? By convincing the UK public to leave the EU and introduce an Australian style Points Based System (PBS). I have to raise an eye brow because the UK has had a Points Based System since 2008. 

In fact, Liam Byrne, the Immigration Minister for the last Labour Government, even labelled it as Australian. In 2007 Byrne told an audience in Sidney that “a new Australian-style points based system will be simpler, clearer and easier to enforce. Crucially it will give us the best way of letting in only those people who have something to offer Britain.”

So, if the policy already exists, what would change? I asked Chris Spentzaris, a Partner in our Melbourne office, to tell me more.

The Australian system

IR: To begin with, who is the Australian system targeting?

CS: Basically the people we need.  Australia's General Skilled Migration (GSM) program is available to skilled migrants who have skills in particular occupations and other attributes that will contribute to the Australian economy.

Those skilled people normally apply independently or under the nomination of a state or territory government. In Melbourne we also see a reasonable number of people apply for sponsorship by via an eligible relative living in a designated area of Australia. Unlike the UK you do not need sponsorship from an employer, meaning you can find a job when you arrive.

IR: How does it work in practice?

CS: First of our system allows prospective migrants to lodge an Expression of Interest (EOI) through the Department of Immigration and Border Protect (DIBP's) 'SkillSelect' system.  Their EOI sets out that they wish to apply for migration under the GSM category and why they think they meet certain key criteria. They must

  • be under 50 years of age at time invitation;
  • have at least 'competent' level of English;
  • plan to work in an occupation from the relevant skilled occupation list; and
  • have obtained a sufficiently positive skills assessment for their nominated occupation.
IR: So where does the points test come into it?
CS: Once you meet those base qualifying criteria you can take the test, so to speak.  Some of the criteria is repeated, for instance age and English language ability but the government also looks at overseas and/or Australian work experience, educational qualifications, Australian study, and even your partner’s skills.  Having a  State/Territory nomination will also go in your favour.

Helpfully you can trade off these requirements against one another.  Older applicants will be awarded less points for age than younger people, but that needn’t be a problem if they’ve studied in Australia or have a skilled husband or wife.

Can you do the same in the UK?

IR: Not anymore. The UK used to allow applicants to score points for earnings and qualifications.  Better paid people needed less academic achievements, just as those with a master or Ph.D. could still qualify despite being paid less than someone with a Bachelors Degree.

That all ended five years ago when the criteria was to all intents and purposes, replaced by a list. Points are now awarded for sponsorship and the salary paid. You can’t trade one off against the other, you need both.

IR: Is the points test the end of the story in Australia?

CS: Not at all. The points test gets you through the door, but only to join the queue.

The EOIs are sifted and grouped by occupation, with a ceiling on the number of places available for each job.  They are then ranked automatically based on the self-assessed scores to allow those prospective migrants with higher rankings to be invited ahead of other prospective migrants

That way we can ensure Australia doesn’t just get skills we need, we are able to pick the best people with those skills and control numbers.

IR: And does it work in practice?

CS: Believe me, I spend my life thinking about the visa system and there are plenty of things I would happily change.  But, all in all, the system works for employers, for migrants, and for the economy.  That isn’t to say there aren’t unwelcome surprises, but it isn’t a bad model to follow.