A government-commissioned review of jobs facing labour shortages has been delayed because of an issue with occupation data.
The Home Office has asked the Migration Advisory Committee – a independent advice body sponsored by the department – to carry out a review of the Shortage Occupation List, which allows employers to sponsor migrants for a skilled worker visa to work in certain jobs while paying them 80% of the usual going rate.
Writing to MAC chair Brian Bell in August, then-immigration minister Kevin Foster said he wanted to address an “ad-hoc” approach that had arisen recently to filling worker shortages, as well as bringing the list of jobs employers are struggling to fill up to date.
The Home Office rejected many of the committee’s recommendations following its last report in 2020, which Foster said had been because of the uncertainty caused by the Covid pandemic.
But he said the time is now “right to review shortages… against the latest available evidence”.
In response, Bell accepted the commission but said it would not be possible to complete it by the Home Office’s proposed deadline of March 2023 – so changes could be made to the immigration system by autumn 2023 – because of an issue with a key dataset.
The review was set to be based on Office for National Statistics Standard Occupational Classification data, which classifies jobs in the UK.
However, in July the ONS said it had identified an issue with the way the data was collected in its latest update, SOC 2020, which meant some survey respondents were wrongly classified. It will publish an update this month on the scale of the errors, along with a timeline for correcting them.
As a result, Bell said the MAC could “not have any confidence in this data such that we can reasonably use it to make any recommendations”.
Rather than using the incorrect data, the committee chair proposed using 2010 figures – the previous iteration – or delaying the review until the ONS’s update. The Home Office could then decide whether to wait for the corrected dataset, depending on how long the ONS said it would take to fix, he said.
“We recognise how frustrating this will be to stakeholders who have been waiting for the SOL review to begin. However, it is crucial that our recommendations are evidence-based, and that we have confidence in that evidence,” Bell said.
Using 2010 data would also be “problematic given the substantial labour market changes that have occurred as the pandemic has eased”, he said.
He said while the MAC would try and meet the Home Office’s timetable “as far as possible”, the commission may not meet the March 2023 deadline. He said there had also been “long delays in getting this commission to us”.
Responding to Bell’s proposals on 6 September, Foster agreed that it would be better to use the 2020 data “if at all possible” given how the labour market has changed since 2010.
But he said the question of which occupation codes the review uses “should not stand in the way of carrying it out in a timely fashion”.
He suggested that ministers are not willing to delay any changes that would be made to the shortage occupation list – setting an “absolute deadline” of June that year.
“If your report were to be delayed any further than then, we would not be able to implement its recommendations in the autumn 2023 immigration rules changes, meaning they would be delayed until spring 2024,” he said.
He said the Home Office would therefore wait for the ONS’s update on its occupation data to decide which figures to use before kicking off the review. He said if the ONS’s correction process was likely to delay the MAC review significantly, it should use the 2010 data.
He added that industries wanting jobs to be added to the SOC would have to provide the MAC with “strong evidence” to make up for the “deficiency” of recent data in this case.
‘The time is right to review shortages’
Foster has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to answer three questions: whether salary requirements for the SOL should be changed; which jobs should continue to be included or removed from the list; and which should be added.
The MAC recommended a series of changes to the SOL in a report in September 2020, following the introduction of a new post-Brexit points-based immigration system at the beginning of the year.
The Home Office rejected most of its recommendations, other than adding a number of health and social care jobs to the list.
“We felt the time was not right to make such wide-scale changes while the skilled worker visa route was still bedding in and the state of the labour market emerging from Covid-19 restrictions was highly uncertain,” Foster said in his August letter to the MAC.
“Since then, the labour market picture has become clearer. We now consider the time is right to review shortages at these levels against the latest available evidence,” he said.
He added that the government had implemented the MAC’s call to add care workers to the SOL “to help ensure short-term sustainability as the social care builds back from the pandemic”.
Care work is currently the only occupation on the shortage list that requires qualifications of less than A Level or equivalent, known as RQF3. However, Foster said employers have been asking for the visa system to enable them to sponsor people to fill other jobs requiring sub-A Level qualifications – which he said had resulted in “ad hoc, temporary provisions” such as those introduced for HGV drivers and food supply-chains workers last autumn, “several of which did not see a significant number of applicants”.
He said the Home Office agreed with a call from the MAC – in its latest annual report – for a more formalised approach.
“The SOL could form the basis of such an approach, ensuring any future provisions were based on consideration of the evidence by the MAC, rather than which sector voices shout the loudest,” he said.