In his speech to parliament to deliver his 2021 Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced noteworthy reforms to the UK immigration system.
“My Right Honourable Friend the Home Secretary knows that a scientific superpower needs scientific superstars so together we’re announcing ambitious, visa reforms aimed at highly skilled migrants, including:
- A new unsponsored points-based visa to attract the best and most promising international talent in science, research and tech.
- New, improved visa processes for scale-ups and entrepreneurs.
- And radically simplified bureaucracy for high skilled visa applications.”
After a long period of consultation and planning, the UK government introduced a new immigration system in December 2020, yet there is still the need for further reform.
- A ‘new unsponsored points-based visa’ is reference to a highly skilled visa programme that is due to be launched in July this year.
- ‘New, improved visa processes for scale-ups and entrepreneurs’ refers to much-needed changes to the Start Up and Innovator visa programmes that were introduced in February 2020.
- ‘radically simplified bureaucracy for high skilled visa applications’ points to changes to the Global Talent visa programme which was introduced in March 2019 and also the highly skilled programme to be launch in July which would not rely on employer sponsorship.
Immediate changes to the immigration rules:
On 4 March 2021, the Home Office announced the following changes to the immigration rules subsequent to the Chancellor’s speech:
- On 1 April 2021, a new Graduate visa route will open for international students who have successfully completed an eligible course whilst studying in the UK under a Tier 4 (General) and/or Student visa.
- A new appendix: ‘Appendix Global Talent: Prestigious Prizes’ has been added to the immigration rules to allow those who have been awarded a qualifying prestigious prize to bypass the mandatory requirement to be endorsed under the Global Talent visa route.
The UK’s tech focus:
The tech sector has been a large area of focus for the Home Office. A key part of the government’s strategy to establish the UK further as a ‘scientific superpower’, is maintaining the contribution of foreign-born workers to UK companies in the tech sector. Foreign-born workers account for 42 per cent of UK fintech employees, with EU workers accounting for 28 per cent of this group. The Chancellor’s proposals follow heavy lobbying from the tech sector, including a review led by former Worldpay CEO, Ron Kalifa, highlighting concerns that UK tech employers are missing out on top talent.
Since the EU Referendum, the current government has sought to encourage further growth within this sector via changes to existing visa routes.
- The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa route became the Global Talent route. The only significant change being the removal of a cap on the number of endorsements available.
- The Start-Up and Innovator visa routes replaced the Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) and Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa programmes respectively. Whilst the Entrepreneur programmes relied on evidence of start-up capital, a business idea (in any field) and individual businessperson credibility, the Start-Up and Innovator visa programmes rely largely on endorsement by a government-approved organisation.
- Otherwise, tech professionals require a job offer and sponsorship by a government-approved company under the Skilled Worker and Intra-Company Transfer visa routes, which replaced the Tier 2 (General) and Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer) visa routes. The key changes being the removal of a cap of the total number of visas that could be made within the visa routes, the removal of onerous resident labour marking testing and the lowering of barriers to entry such as a lower skill level and lower salary levels for most roles.
What changes are now expected?
- We expect a new highly skilled visa programme to be launched in July 2021, which relies on a points-based eligibility criteria where points are awarded for:
- Degree/PhD in a STEM subject
- A job offer from a UK company subject to restrictions on the company and role being STEM-related
- English language (likely a level of at least B1)
- The new highly skilled visa would allow an individual to work for a company in the UK without the company bearing the additional cost of the Immigration Skills Charge.
- Whilst the initial visa relies on a job offer, any right to remain in the UK and qualify for extension applications and indefinite leave to remain could rely on a continuous employment requirement.
- Welcome changes to the Start Up and Innovator visa programmes would be reforms to the endorsement process. The Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa was unsuccessful partly because immigration officers were not qualified to assess business proposals. However, the incentive for private business to endorse business proposals is first not sufficient to encourage more businesses to become endorsing bodies and is also at the cost of the entrepreneur who is paying with either equity or paying business consultancy fees.