New immigration rules will be “simple and flexible”, ministers have promised, as the UK’s points-based post-Brexit system prepares to go live.
From Tuesday all foreign nationals, including from the European Union, who want to work in the UK from 1 January will have to apply online for a visa.
Those seeking a skilled worker visa will need a job offer, to be proficient in English and earn at least £25,600.
Free movement from and to the EU will come to an end on 31 December.
EU citizens already living in the UK by 31 December and their families do not have to go through the new system but instead can apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, and have until 30 June 2021 to do so.
If they are successful, they will be able to remain in the UK and claim the same benefits as UK citizens if they become unemployed.
Irish citizens do not need to apply to the scheme and will not require permission to come to the UK, as the UK and Ireland are both part of a Common Travel Area.
The UK left the EU on 31 January but has been largely following its rules during the subsequent 11-month transition period, as the two sides try to reach agreement over a trade deal.
As talks continue in London, the UK is stepping up its preparations for leaving the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of the year.
The government has announced it is setting up a new Border Operations Centre, which it says will ensure round-the-clock surveillance of goods and passengers coming in and out of British ports for the first time.
Border preparations stepped up
Cutting-edge software will be used to gather information about the flow of goods and passengers in the hope of minimising the amount of “short-term” disruption at the border in the days and weeks after 1 January.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the new system, which will be manned 24/7, would enable the authorities to identify and get on top of bottlenecks “quickly and decisively”.
Business groups have said delays at the border are inevitable given the looming changes to customs procedures while Labour said “glaring questions” remained unanswered about what businesses needed to do.
“The government is putting the burden on businesses to prepare for the end of the transition period when it has not explained what it is those businesses are getting ready for,” said shadow minister Rachel Reeves.
“The government is re-badging a basic element of preparation but still can’t tell us how many customs agents are recruited or trained or whether crucial IT is ready.”
To tackle what the Cabinet Office calls the “challenges” of potential disruption at the UK border next year, a Border Operations Centre will use big data technology to try to “identify the root causes” of hold-ups to passengers and freight.
The software system is produced by the controversial US tech firm Palantir and will pull together information from different government computers to monitor the flow of people and vehicles across the UK border.
Palantir has courted controversy in the United States, where its systems are used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
This has led the human rights organisation Amnesty International to warn of “a high risk that Palantir is contributing to serious human rights violations of migrants and asylum-seekers”.
The company denies the suggestion and says it remains extremely concerned about protecting human rights, privacy rights, and civil liberties in general.
The UK government has stressed that Palantir will only process data in Britain and that strict measures are in place to protect personal information.
What is changing in immigration?
The UK’s new immigration system will determine who can work in the country from 1 January.
Online applications for visas via a range of new “routes” will open on Tuesday.
Applications for skilled worker visas will be judged on the basis of a points system, which is modelled on the system in place in Australia for many years.
Points will be awarded for a job offer at the appropriate skill level in an eligible occupation, knowledge of English and whether applicants meet a salary threshold - which will typically be at least £25,600.
The cost of applying will be between £610 to £1,408 and people will have to show they have enough money to support themselves as well as having proof of identity.
Applicants will have to wait about three weeks to find out whether they have been successful.
Route for ‘exceptional talent’
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the system would be “simple, effective and flexible” and enable employers to fill skills gaps while also placing a greater onus on firms to train and invest in British workers.
Ms Patel and other critics of free movement have long argued it has left British firms overly reliant on low-skilled workers from the continent and put applicants from the rest of the rest of the world at a disadvantage.
But unions have warned of a looming crisis over the recruitment of social care staff under the new rules and says action is also needed to support those foreign-born NHS workers whose visas are expiring.
Applications also opened on Tuesday for Global Talent, Innovator and Start-Up visas designed to attract “those who have an exceptional talent or show exceptional promise in the fields of engineering, science, tech or culture”.
New rules for international students came into force in October.
The rights of the more than three million EU citizens already working in the UK are protected under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the UK and EU earlier this year.
As of 30 September, 2.1 million people had been granted settled status and 1.6 million pre-settled status - ensuring they can remain in the UK.