What would an Australian-style immigration points system mean for the UK?

1 July 2016
What was claimed

If we leave the EU, we could introduce a points-based immigration system like Australia’s.

Our verdict

This is correct. We're likely to need to leave the single market to do so.

What was claimed

The proposal to introduce a points-based system could put up immigration, based on Australia's experience.

Our verdict

Australia's immigration levels don't tell us anything about what might happen in the UK. Whether or not immigration went up would depend, in part, on how the points-based system was designed by the UK.

What was claimed

The proposal to introduce a points-based system would wreck the economy.

Our verdict

Setting up a points-based system would likely involve leaving the single market, and most economists say that would have a negative impact on the economy.

"[If the UK votes to leave the EU] by the next general election, we will create a genuine Australian-style points based immigration system."

Vote Leave, 1 June 2016

"Australia, who have a points based immigration system, have twice as many migrants per head as the UK [...] This system will not work. Vote Leave’s proposal could put up immigration and it would wreck our economy, as it involves leaving Europe’s single market."

Britain Stronger In Europe, 1 June 2016

The UK can't currently introduce a points-based system to limit the immigration of EU citizens. If we left the EU, we could introduce one. But we’re unlikely be able to do that and stay in the single market, and that could in turn bring economic costs.

It’s correct that Australia itself has at least twice as many immigrants per head as the UK does, but this doesn't tell us anything about what would happen if a similar system was introduced in the UK. Australia has a different set of policy goals to the UK, and has used its points system to allow more workers to arrive.

How many people a points system would admit would depend very much on how the points system was designed.

Inside the EU, the UK cannot implement a points-based system for EU immigrants

As long as we remain in the EU, we can't control the number of immigrants who come to the UK from the EU. That’s because EU citizens have the right to live and work in any other EU country, with some exceptions.

The UK probably needs to leave the single market to implement a points-based system

Outside the EU, the UK is likely to have a choice over whether to stay in the single market, and that's likely to affect whether free movement of EU citizens still applies.

Free movement of people applies to countries not in the EU but in the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway, as it does to Switzerland. Norway and Switzerland both have higher immigration per head of population from the EU than the UK, as of 2013.

So controlling the level of EU immigration is likely to require leaving the single market (which includes EEA countries), as well as the EU.

Leaving the single market could have a knock-on effect on the economy. Most economic forecasts predict that leaving the EU would have some negative impact on the economy; with the impact being smaller the closer any new arrangements are to our current economic relationship with the EU.

If the UK left the EU and implemented a points-based system, it’s unclear what would happen to immigration

It’s correct that Australia has about twice the number of immigrants per person, if you take the OECD’s figures on the foreign-born population of Australia and the UK. 28% of Australians were born abroad, compared to 12% in the UK.

But that doesn’t mean that introducing a new points-based system would give the UK the same immigration rate as Australia. A points system could be set up to admit a large number of people or a small number, depending on how it is designed. Australia has its own policies and sets its own quotas within the framework of its points system.

Similar questions apply to immigration rules that aren’t points-based, like the employer-sponsorship system currently in place for non-EU nationals in the UK. These can also be designed to be more or less restrictive and could be used to target a particular level of immigration from the EU, if the UK left the European single market.

So in other words, the question is not just whether the UK introduces a points-based system like Australia’s, but what restrictions and targets the government chooses to adopt instead of allowing free movement of EU nationals.

The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has recently investigated this question in depth.

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