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Development of Immigration Policy | United Kingdom |

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Development of Immigration Policy

Randall Hansen

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The United Kingdom became a country of immigration after the Second World War. Until the early 1960s, immigrants from the former colonies took advantage of privileged immigration channels. However, large numbers of immigrants soon led to the implementation of immigration controls which have become increasingly restrictive over time.

Immigrants from the Caribbean in the London district of Brixton 1961: Until 1962, Commonwealth immigrants, as British subjects, enjoyed unimpeded access to the United Kingdom. (© picture-alliance)

Until 1962, Commonwealth immigrants, as British subjects, enjoyed unimpeded access to the United Kingdom, and in the 1950s some 500,000 migrants, mostly young, single men, travelled to the UK. Following a large upsurge in arrivals from the late 1950s, the Conservative government enacted the first immigration controls in 1962 (though it exempted the Irish), and the Labour opposition bitterly denounced the measure as populist and racist. Two years later, the Labour government was in power, and it quickly recognized that family reunification meant that every pre-1962 migrant would bring in two to four subsequent migrants in the form of his family members. It thus abandoned its previous commitment to open borders and extended immigration controls in 1965. In 1971, the Conservative government placed British subjects on the same legal footing as aliens (though those with British grandparents continued to enjoy entry rights). The measure took effect in 1973, when the UK opened its borders to European Economic Community workers. Restrictive policy towards non-EU migrants continued under Labour and Conservative governments through the ensuing decades. Efforts aimed at reducing asylum applications have been, and remain, a constant. Until the 2000s, EU migration, which was until then mostly skilled, attracted little attention, but since the accession of Eastern European states in 2004 such migration has been highly controversial.

The greatest change to immigration policy occurred in 2002 with the issuing of a white paper setting out an ambitious and comprehensive plan for "managed migration." The break with previous policy was reiterated in support for high-skilled "economic" migration within the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act of the same year, and the Highly Skilled Migrant Program (HSMP), a scheme based on a points system like Australia’s, was introduced. In 2008, the HSMP was abandoned under a reformed immigration system.

Immigration System Reform

In 2006, the points system was elaborated into a five-tiered system for non-EU migrants following public consultation about immigration system reform. Points are allocated to applicants under the new system based on skills and labor market needs. The 80 or so separate routes of entry previously available have been streamlined as follows: the first tier is for highly-skilled migrants (the only group who do not need a job offer to qualify); the second tier covers skilled workers needed in specific sectors, such as nurses, teachers and engineers; the third tier covers low-skilled workers (these applicants need employer sponsors); the fourth tier is for students; and the fifth tier covers working holidaymakers and professional athletes and musicians. The third tier was never implemented.

On coming to power in 2010, the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, promised to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands and has struggled to achieve that goal. In the face of much lobbying from the business community, the government set the annual Tier 1 limit at 1,000 and limited it to the "exceptionally talented;" set the Tier 2 limit at 20,700; but exempted high earners (those earning over £150,000 per year) as well as intra-company transfers and a number of other categories. Tier 4 visas are subject to more rigorous checks (to avoid educational institutions being used as a means to secure easy entry) and subject to a time limit: students may only stay in the UK for five years. Students previously could apply for a Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa, but now have to apply for a Tier 2 visa. Tier 5 is not subjected to numerical limits, but applicants must secure enough points under a points system (sufficient funds secures 10 points out of the required 30) in order to be issued a visa. In 2012 the government announced a minimum annual salary threshold of £35,000 for Tier 2 migrant workers.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile United Kingdom.



  1. Hansen (2000).

  2. Hansen (2000).

  3. Under the Working Holidaymaker Scheme, persons aged 17 to 30 from Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Monaco, and Taiwan, some residents of British overseas territories and British Nationals (Overseas), chiefly from Hong Kong, can come to the United Kingdom for an extended holiday of up to two years; they are entitled to work for up to twelve months within this two-year period.

  4. For an overview, see Hansen (2014).


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Dr. Randall Hansen is Full Professor at the Canada Research Chair in Immigration and Governance, and Director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. E-Mail Link: