The frontrunner for No 10’s ‘tough’ stance is pure posturing. The truth is, he knows the UK must open its arms to migrants “tough new Australian-style points-based system for immigration”: Boris Johnson’s radical new proposal, splashed across Thursday’s front pages? No, that was Liam Byrne, then the Labour immigration minister. In 2007. I was a civil servant then, and I complained to a special adviser colleague, more in sorrow than in anger, that what we were proposing had little or no resemblance to the Australian system – and wasn’t even really a points-based system. “Of course, I know that perfectly well,” he said. “But the focus groups love it.”
It is in that light that we should read Johnson’s essentially vacuous pronouncements, spun in the Telegraph as the restoration of “control over our borders” and in the Financial Times, by contrast, as “bringing down barriers to skilled overseas workers”.
There are essentially two ways of looking at this. The first is simply to note that, after Brexit, the UK will not have free movement (still less “open borders”) with any country except Ireland, but nor will it be closed to economic migration. Therefore, by definition, there will have to be a system that allows in some people to work, but not others, as is the case for every developed country, and is already the case for migrants coming to the UK from outside the EU, as it has been for decades. That means a set of criteria or tests – call them points, if you like – is required. And, as in Australia and in other countries, those “points” will be based on skills, education, whether you have a job offer, etc. In that sense, talking about a “points-based system” is a statement of the obvious.
The second way, however, is to look at how the Australian system (and other systems, such as the Canadian one, that actually have a scoring system) actually works in practice. The key distinguishing feature – which differs from most European countries, including the current UK system – is that potential migrants are not required to have a job offer, but instead can qualify on the basis of specific skills and educational qualifications, as well as other factors, such as age.
Now the relative merits of these two distinct approaches are disputed. Some argue that allowing people to settle permanently is a long-term investment for the country – and therefore simply looking at whether an employer wants to hire someone today might not necessarily be a very good indicator of their long-term contribution. Others, by contrast, point out that governments aren’t necessarily going to be terribly good at assessing that either, and that at least the requirement for a job offer introduces a market test. And the Australian and Canadian systems have in fact recently shifted in this direction.