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There was one big immigration story in 2019 – and it wasn’t Brexit

Brexit nearly happened, didn’t happen, nearly happened and didn’t happen again. However, the dithering didn’t stop a wholesale reform of the UK’s immigration laws.


The year began with expectations that the UK would leave the European Union on 31st March 2019. But, whether or not the nation did leave on that date was, to EU nationals, academic. They had already been told to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme if they wished to remain in the country. The scheme went live in March, enabling EU, EEA and Swiss nationals living in the UK to continue to live in the UK after Brexit. For EU nationals, the clock had already started ticking.

Public reaction

As could be expected, the EUSS was criticised by many, particularly media outlets with a remainer bias. Such outlets broadly took the view that it was insulting to ask EU nationals to go through the humiliating process of having to ask for permission to stay. The partisan nature of media coverage is perhaps best demonstrated by this Guardian piece actively seeking negative EUSS experiences to report. Perhaps not for the first or last time, EU nationals’ futures were a political football.

The policy was also roundly criticised, across the board, for its application fee of £65, which was then waived after public outcry. The scheme grants applicants with ‘settled’ or ‘pre-settled’ status. In accordance with Article 15 of the Withdrawal Agreement, EU nationals who have five years of continuous residence in the UK ‘have the right to reside permanently’. This right is to be granted in the form of settled status. Pre-settled status allows the holder to remain in the UK for a further five years from the date they were granted pre-settled status. This provides the necessary time for applicants to become eligible for settled status.

We’re now in a world of ‘what have you to offer’ as opposed to ‘where do you come from’


The big story in 2019, however, were the changes to the Tier-1 visa, which have radically changed how the UK engages with the world. Replacing the Tier-1 Graduate Entrepreneur Visa is the Start-Up Visa, which is aimed at ambitious entrepreneurs looking to set up their own business in the UK. Unlike its predecessor, it is open to graduates and non-graduates, which is patently more egalitarian. This opens up the UK to a wider pool of talent – and it’s a sensible recognition that not all start-up entrepreneurs have a degree. More importantly, perhaps, no initial funding is needed to be eligible. The emphasis in a post-Brexit Britain is capabilities – not cash.

The politics behind this significant change is, of course, Brexit and the forthcoming end to free movement, which allowed unrestricted access to a regional population of 580 million people irrespective of their skills and capabilities. The new visa regime places emphasis on skills, ideas, and creativity rather than geography. The end of freedom of movement is, of course, highly political and to many, deeply personal. And, there are signs that there are already problems in store for the NHS with a marked slowdown in the number of EU nurses coming to the country. As of November 2019, 3,250 EU staff had left the NHS according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Entrepreneurs and innovators

Individuals who have done well in their two years on a Start-Up Visa can switch to an Entrepreneur Visa, enabling them to stay in the country and flourish. However, they need to have £50,000 in the bank to do so – so their business has to have done very well. Interestingly, the Home Office has also added an Exceptional Talent Visa for individuals working in a qualifying field and who is recognised as a leader with exceptional talent or an emerging leader with exceptional promise.

The fields of work that are eligible include science and medicine, engineering, humanities, digital technology and arts and culture. To develop a visa scheme that is nuanced and reflects the needs of a modern economy makes sense. However, none of these visas address the issue of nurses and high demand for seasonal workers – which is where freedom of movement served Britain well.

For innovators, a new Innovator Visa is available – with the funds required slashed from £200,000 to only £50,000 – again a more open and egalitarian move. If you are an entrepreneur with a proven business model that has made a good start with money in the bank, Britain is now cheaper and easier to get in to. If the business succeeds after three years, they will be able to apply for settled status. It’s also worth mentioning that the Investor Visa is still available but applicants are required to prove that they have had control of the required £2 million for at least two years rather than the 90 days, or provide evidence of the source of those funds. This is a concerted effort to stamp out money laundering.

Politicisation of immigration

Whilst immigration has always been a political hot potato, the general election in December 2019 brought the issue to the fore in a quite remarkable way. Whilst Boris Johnson stayed true to Tory form by promising to bring the net number of immigrants down (a promise never yet met), the Labour Party rolled out a spectacular policy of ‘maintaining and extending free movement rights, close all detention centres and reject any immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business and number caps/targets.’

This policy was passed at Labour Party conference in 2019, although the Party went on to say that it is still in the early part of the policy development cycle. Perhaps even more surprising was the Party’s election manifesto pledge to give all foreign nationals the right to vote – a move that many commentators believe is a highly cynical abuse of the country’s electoral and immigration laws. Paul Scully MP, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, said: “The right to vote in Parliamentary elections and choose the next UK Government is rightly restricted to British citizens and those with the closest historic links to our country. Labour’s policies on uncontrolled immigration are completely out of touch with public opinion, which is why they want to gerrymander the polls.”

As we head to Christmas its worth reflecting on a year of incredible change: not only in how the UK structures its immigration policy but in how the country has shifted its position on the world stage. The new policy framework sets the world’s citizens on a level pegging, removing the bias towards EU nationals and placing the emphasis solely on skills. The shift presents Britain with opportunities and challenges – and for many commentators, it remains a highly partisan change that is intractably linked to Brexit.

Whichever way you look at it, 2019 has been a year of enormous disruption – and Brexit hasn’t even happened yet.

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