Immigration law is a hot topic of debate and it is likely to get even hotter in the New Year. The Home Office recently completed a consultation on the Government’s proposed single points-based system for managed migration after being forced to extend the initial consultation deadline until 7 December following fierce lobbying from industries as diverse as the investment banking and entertainment sectors. We now eagerly await the publication of the results in February 2006, as this has the potential to create a real barrier to business and the access to international talent.

Immigration has rarely been out of the public eye since the General Election, when it became a central issue in the campaigning after opinion polls revealed that the issue was of more concern to the public than the war in Iraq. In the heady atmosphere of pre-election debates, the Government announced a five-year strategy for asylum and immigration, with the aim of gaining public confidence in the immigration system.

The strategy is to strengthen immigration control, both at borders and in-country, and admit migrants selectively to maximise the economic benefits of migration to the UK. The Government proposed a single points-based system to streamline the current 50-plus ways of coming to the UK into five broad tiers, the objective being to create a simple and transparent road plan for migration to the UK. While the Government’s plans may be well intended, the proposals set out in the Home Office’s consultation document published in July have been causing worry in some quarters, as the process will become much more complex and onerous for employers and potentially limit the accessible talent pool.

The Government proposes to move the decision-making process for work permits from the Home Office in Sheffield to the 150-plus diplomatic posts around the world. The current two-stage procedure of a work permit application in Sheffield followed by a visa application in an overseas embassy would be combined into a single application abroad. However, this raises concerns about the consistency of decision-making at these multiple posts.

The Government has assured practitioners that the new scheme will be as objective as possible. However, in practice it is very difficult to design a scheme that is totally objective. The Home Office department that processes work permits in Sheffield is regarded highly, and employers and practitioners are concerned that this body of knowledge and experience will be lost.

The question of consistent, quality decision-making is all the more urgent as the Government has committed itself to dispensing with the appeal system. There will be no appeal rights at all. While in practice few business clients are prepared to fight lengthy appeals, the fact that there is an appeal system makes decision-making more accountable.

There is also concern about the possibility of auctioning work permits, which is another idea raised in the consultation paper. Auctions for work permits for non-shortage occupations would affect smaller business and the non-for-profit centres and are inherently unfair.

Thankfully, the Government has taken businesses’ concerns regarding the changes on board and will stage further deliberations following the publication of the results of the initial consultation in February. The Government intends to implement the changes in a piecemeal fashion, with further consultation before each stage. Businesses have traditionally been reticent about becoming involved in the issue of immigration, but they must harness this opportunity and become engaged in the debate, as these changes present a real threat to business. We do not want to end up in the situation where headquarters for businesses are moved away from the UK because of difficulties in immigration.

Julia Onslow-Cole, head of global immigration, CMS Cameron McKenna