On 9 March the Government published a statement of changes to the Immigration Rules (the Statement), some of which are in line with its ambition to deliver a fully digital process for individuals using the immigration system.
The Home Office is gradually phasing out the use of physical documents such as Biometric Residence Permits and granting individuals with a digital immigration status. Other changes relate to recently introduced routes and introduce new requirements.
Innovator Founder route
The Innovator route was opened in 2019, aimed at new entrepreneurs who want to establish a business in the UK for the first time. The business is required to be innovative, viable and scalable and it must be approved by an endorsing body.
Applicants are required to spend the majority of their working time on the business venture and be genuinely intending to undertake, and capable of undertaking, the work or business activity.
The new Innovator Founder route no longer requires applicants to have funds of £50,000 available to invest and now permits them to carry out secondary employment outside the running of their business.
Minimum Salary Increases
Sponsor licence holders need to be aware of some upcoming tweaks to the Skilled Worker visa route announced on 9 March 2023. In line with an imminent increase to the National Living Wage, the Home Office has announced an increase to Skilled Worker visa salary thresholds from 12 April 2023.
The minimum gross annual salary threshold for most applications is increasing by £600 from £25,600 to £26,200, and for those on Global Business Mobility routes, the salary requirements are now £45,800 (for senior workers) and £24,220 (for specialist workers). For Scale-Up workers, the minimum salary requirement is now £34,600.
Going rates will now be based on a 37.5-hour working week rather than a 39-hour working week. This is an important consideration where employees are contracted for longer weekly working hours, as proposed salaries will need to be pro-rated to calculate eligibility for sponsorship.
These salary and going-rate changes will only apply to visa applications made using a Certificate of Sponsorship issued on or after 12 April 2023. For existing Certificate of Sponsorship holders, employers of existing sponsored workers need not worry, there is no immediate requirement to take action from an immigration perspective. It is only when it comes to a worker’s next visa extension or settlement stage that employers will need to ensure salaries align with the new mandatory minimums.
Introduction of Electronic Travel Authorisation Scheme (ETA)
As part of the Government’s commitment to enhanced safety and security at the UK border, the ETA is being introduced, initially to be applicable to certain nationalities only who are travelling to the UK and who do not require a visa to enter.
The scheme will be similar to the electronic system for travel authorisation application (ESTA) scheme for travellers to the US, which requires all visitors to complete an ESTA prior to their visit. This is effectively a prior approval for travel to the country for those who do not require a formal visit visa. Those who already hold a UK entry visas, as well as British and Irish nationals returning or travelling to the UK, will not be required to obtain an ETA.
The ETA is due to start from November 2023 for citizens of Qatar, and will be extended to citizens of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE from February 2024.
The ETA scheme will take the form of an online application, requiring various personal and travel details and a payment (with the amount yet to be confirmed). The application, like ESTA, will be valid for an unlimited number of trips over a two-year period and airline carriers will be responsible for ensuring individuals have an appropriate ETA prior to travel. Those who do not may face a fine.
In view of the speed with which these changes are likely to be introduced across all nationalities, it is essential that businesses who regularly have business visitors in the UK remain up to date.
India Young Professionals Scheme
The Government has launched a new immigration scheme offering Indian nationals between 18 and 30 years old the opportunity to live and work in the UK for up to 2 years. Like the conditions that are in place under the Youth Mobility Scheme, which allows nationals of certain Commonwealth and other countries to come to the UK for up to 2 years, there is an invitation to apply under the new scheme. This means that applicants must be selected in a ballot before they can apply for the visa.
The first ballot of 2023 is now closed, with future ballots anticipated. To be eligible, applicants must:
- Be an Indian national between 18 and 30 years old.
- Have a qualification at Bachelor’s level or above.
- Have at least £2,530 in savings to support themselves in the UK.
- Pay the £259 Indian visa fee and make a £940 Immigration Health Surcharge payment.
Extension of the Shortage Occupation List (SOL)
The Government made changes in the Budget to the points-based system and the SOL, to address labour shortages. The SOL is a list of jobs which the Government considers to be in short supply within the UK labour market . Currently, if a job is listed on the SOL, lower application fees and reduced salary requirements apply to the sponsored worker’s visa application.
In short, the Budget confirmed that the recommendations of the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) would be accepted, and will add five construction occupations to the SOL. This will take effect later this summer ahead of the MAC’s wider review of the SOL reporting in the autumn.
Right to work check updates
The Home Office updated the Employers’ Guidance on Right to Work checks on 28 February 2023, covering the use of ID Service Providers (IDSPs). On 6 April 2022, changes came in which enabled employers to use Identity Document Validation Technology (IDVT) via the services of an Identity Service Provider (IDSP) to complete the digital identity verification element of right to work checks for British and Irish citizens who hold a valid passport.
The recent guidance states that some IDSPs offer services in relation to manual checks. However, employers should note that it is not possible to establish a statutory excuse (and thus limit the risk of prosecution for illegal working) if the manual document-based check is performed by an IDSP.
Importantly, employers cannot therefore outsource the right to work checks to IDSPs completely. Companies should still conduct the checks themselves on all employees who are not British or Irish citizens.
Return of Priority Service for family visa applications
One piece of good news is the reintroduction of priority service and the return of standard processing times for family visa applications made from outside the UK. This is a welcome change and shows that the Home Office is slowly recovering from the service disruption and massive delays experienced throughout 2022: it was taking 24 weeks for a standard spouse visa application to be considered and processed, and that has now been reduced to 3 weeks, on payment of a priority fee of around £500, with the standard processing time reduced to 60 days, as of 3 April 2023.
Other potential changes?
Other speculation surrounds the possibility of withdrawing the English language requirement, as well as a new option to start limiting overseas students’ ability to bring dependents and their involvement in the labour market, unless they are sponsored, which could mean a reduction in students and therefore the availability of future graduates for employers. None of this was however hinted at or confirmed in the Budget on 15 March.
All the above changes and proposals serve as a reminder that now more than ever, sponsorship licence holders need to plan ahead to forecast their recruitment requirements and identify the most suitable immigration routes in light of evolving policy, while also having tools such as sponsor licences in place. Such steps will ensure employers are best prepared for whatever 2023 has in store in the immigration space.