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Immigration Bill enters Parliament – what does this mean for architects?

The House of Commons have begun debating key legislation that introduces new government powers over the immigration system post-Brexit. What does this mean for architects?

20 May 2020

The House of Commons have this week begun debating key legislation that introduces new Government powers over the immigration system post-Brexit. The Bill itself does not provide the full details of the future immigration system – which will be in place from January 2021 – but formally removes the UK from the system of freedom of movement under EU membership.

With one quarter of architects registered with the Architects Registration Board originally from countries outside of the United Kingdom, the future immigration system will have a real impact on the architecture sector. Many practices and architects are feeling the uncertainty caused by Brexit and more recently,  by coronavirus. This is why the RIBA has been clear that the UK government must take a holistic approach to the immigration and skills agenda to support a high-skilled, high-wage economy and a sector that significantly benefits from access to international talent.

Research on immigration and UK architecture published by the RIBA last year showed that the future system must be flexible, efficient, and ensure that highly-skilled architects can work in practices across the UK, regardless of size. Although the full details of the system are yet to be confirmed, there are a few headlines that point to the future direction of the governments thinking.

There will be no cap on the number of available visas

For a number of years there has been a yearly cap on the level of immigration to the UK from outside of the EU – with the number of available visas pooled and given out on a monthly basis. The UK government has stated that there will be no cap on the number of visas available in the future, with immigration managed through points ascribed to the role and applicant.

The RIBA’s view: The RIBA recommended that the cap should be scrapped, after it was clear that the cap had meant visas had become unavailable to some international architects in periods when there were increased numbers of international workers entering the UK across the economy.

The future-system will be points-based and salary-based

The current immigration system for those moving to the UK from outside the EU is based on the accumulation of points based on characteristics of the job, with the salary of the role being one of the most important. The salary threshold that has to be met is determined by the average earnings associated with a role, and whether this is higher or lower than the general salary threshold it sets for immigration to the UK.

The UK government has flagged that this is set to continue in a reformulated way, and last year asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to make recommendations as to how this would work. The MAC recommended a drop in the general salary threshold, but for the continued existence of role-based thresholds for jobs at graduate-level and above, such as architecture. The actual salary thresholds have yet to be determined by government.

The RIBA’s view: The RIBA’s research shows that salary thresholds - especially those based on UK-wide earning surveys – can be particularly problematic for employers outside of London and in smaller practices. We have called on the UK Government to look again at the use of salary thresholds for those in high-skilled roles such as architecture.

It will still be a costly process

There are a number of charges and fees that both applicants and employers face within the immigration system, including health charges and the Immigration Skills Charge. Some of these chargers are lower for smaller employers but can still mount into thousands of pounds, making recruitment of international talent particularly burdensome on smaller practices, who make up the vast majority of the sector. The government has said this is set to continue under the new scheme.

The RIBA’s view: There is going to be a marked increase in the number of practices that will have to factor in higher costs when recruitment of international talent. While it is understood that the cost of employment should be the responsibility of those who most directly benefit from it, charges such as the Immigration Skills Charge function as a tax and the money does not contribute either to the running of the system or developing UK skills. Unnecessary charges should be abolished in order to ensure that there is a fair playing field for employers, regardless of size.

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