Digitising the immigration system and new immigration routes: the Home Office's New Plan for Immigration strategy statement

Digitising the immigration system and new immigration routes: the Home Office's New Plan for Immigration strategy statement

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The Home Office has published its New Plan for Immigration strategy statement, setting out its vision for the UK’s border and immigration system over the coming years. The statement, which focuses on legal migration and border control, builds on an earlier statement published in March.

We’ve set out below the key announcements in the statement and what they mean for individuals wanting to visit, work or live in the UK, and also for businesses:

Electronic Travel Authorisations

During 2021, the Home Office plans to lay the foundations for the introduction of Electronic Travel Authorisations (ETAs).

ETAs, which will be similar to the ESTAs required of certain visitors arriving in the USA, will be introduced as part of the Home Office’s plans for a universal "permission to travel" scheme. This will require virtually all visitors to seek permission to enter the UK in advance of travel. The introduction of ETAS is expected to be complete by the end of 2024 and will mean that nearly all overseas nationals entering the UK will need some form of permission to enter – whether it be a full immigration visa, permission to enter or otherwise an ETA. Only British and Irish citizens, as well as those with British citizenship in the Crown Dependencies or British Overseas Territories, will not be required to obtain ETAs when visiting the UK.

The main reason for introducing ETAs is to allow security checks to be conducted, and to enable more informed decision making as to whether individuals should be allowed to enter the UK, at an earlier stage of travel. This will mean that businesses and individuals will need to factor in the need to apply for an ETA when planning visits to the UK, both in terms of timing and ensuring that the individual meets the visitor requirements and will not be undertaking work in the UK. On the plus side, the introduction of ETAs should provide individuals with more assurance about their ability to travel to the UK.

Digitising the immigration system

Over the next four years, the Home Office plans to implement a “transformational change for everyone who interacts with the immigration system” with the aim of providing migrants travelling to the UK with a “fully digital” journey.

As well as introducing ETAs, the Home Office intends to:

  • By the summer of 2021, ensure that UK Border Force will have the ability to check whether an individual has applied for, or has been granted, status under the EU Settlement Scheme when they arrive at the UK border. It is not clear if the necessary IT system will be up and running by 1 July 2021 so EEA nationals and family members may wish to print off and carry evidence with them that they have status under the EU Settlement Scheme
  • Move away from hard copy documents which evidence immigration status, such as hard copy vignettes placed in the passports of those granted permission to enter the UK and Biometric Residence Permits, and replace them with a digital status record or e-visa. This is controversial as many prefer to retain a hard copy document
  • Provide online services to allow migrants to prove their right to work and rent

We will have to wait to see if the move towards a more digitised immigration system, and away from hard copy documents, will lessen the costs and time required of migrants and businesses in dealing with immigration applications. It is also hoped that the provision of online services for migrants will simplify processes for sponsors, employers and landlords, by lessening the documents that migrants will need to rely on to prove their immigration status.

Changes to the sponsorship system

Employers who regularly use the Sponsorship Management System will no doubt be pleased to know that the Home Office plans to deliver a digital, simplified and modern sponsorship system that enables a more efficient operation for users and the Home Office, and also encourages compliance. As part of this, the Home Office aims to speed up end-to-end processing, from applying for a sponsor license to a worker or student being approved for a visa. 

Other proposed changes include introducing automated checks with HMRC and Companies House to identify sponsors and users that can have fast track approval and providing a dashboard to help sponsors manage their sponsored workers and see feedback on their visa applications.

Other changes may be less welcome. For example, the Home Office intends to automatically check PAYE data from HMRC to ensure compliance with salary requirements and other sponsorship duties. It also proposes to introduce trust ratings for sponsors based on a track record of compliance to allow a differentiated approach to sponsor and reporting duties. The statement makes it clear that sponsor licence visits will continue to play an important role in ensuring compliance and it appears that there will be an increased focus on compliance with employment legislation. Key protections for workers, for example a maximum 48 hour working week, will be monitored via these visits. The new sponsorship system will also make greater use of technology to identify abuse and the Home Office will continue to work closely with key partners, including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.

On a more helpful note, the Home Office also plans to establish a service that can lend support to small and micro businesses, working with their business stakeholders. They also intend to introduce a new Skilled Worker Eligibility checking tool making it easier for prospective employers and workers to understand if a particular job is eligible under the Skilled Worker route.

In addition, there are plans to review the Home Office’s fees for those who use the sponsorship system, although there is no mention as to whether the intention is to increase or decrease them. Currently, the cost of sponsoring an individual is a deterrent to employing non-British workers in many cases.

New immigration routes

The Graduate route

We understand that, from 1 July 2021, the Home Office will launch the new Graduate route. This will allow overseas nationals who have completed a bachelor’s degree, postgraduate degree, or other specific professional qualifications at degree level or above in the UK to remain here for a further two years and to work in a job at any skill level. If they find a suitable job and a willing sponsor, they will then be eligible to switch into the Skilled Worker route before their leave expires.

The Graduate route is a welcome new option for employers as it means that there will be no need to sponsor the individual or to comply with sponsor obligations. Further, applicants will not need to meet additional maintenance or English language requirements, having already demonstrated their ability to meet these requirements on the Student route. The application fee will also be lower – only £700. The new route means that employers will be able to recruit from a wider pool of candidates than they are currently able to for short term positions or for the initial period of employment, and without the same levels of financial commitment required under the Skilled Worker route. 

It’s worth bearing in mind that time spent under this category does not count towards the five years’ residence required to obtain indefinite leave to remain. 

The Graduate route will be the first immigration route to be delivered through a fully online application process. Applicants of all nationalities will be able to apply online from within the UK and prove their identity using the ChipChecker process with their Biometric Residence Permit and by uploading a photo. This will mean that the applicant will not need to attend an appointment to give their biometrics. The Home Office will re-use fingerprint biometrics already captured through their Student route application process to undertake the required checks.

The Global Business Mobility route

By spring 2022, the government intends to introduce the Global Business Mobility route. This single, sponsored route is intended to reform and bring together various existing routes, to simplify immigration for businesses and encourage businesses to grow in the UK and employ people.

We understand that the new route will incorporate:

  • Existing provisions for sponsored intra-company transferees
  • Arrangements for employees of an overseas business who come to the UK to establish a branch or subsidiary. The government has indicated that the existing rules, which restrict the current route to a single representative, will be relaxed depending on, for example, the size of the businesses’ investment in the UK
  • Existing arrangements implementing the UK’s trade commitments for contractual service suppliers and independent professionals
  • New provisions to accommodate import and export-related secondments to, for example, better accommodate scenarios in which an overseas business has contracted with a UK business for the supply of goods and needs to second workers to the supplier for the purposes of product development or familiarisation

These proposals will no doubt be welcomed by many businesses, particularly those who are struggling to transfer individuals to the UK from Europe on a short term basis following the end of free movement.

The unsponsored work route

The government’s statement also sets out that, in spring 2022, a work route will be introduced which will be points based, but without the requirement for sponsorship. This route will place a particular emphasis on highly-skilled and academically elite individuals.

As well as offering migrants more options for coming to work in the UK, we understand that the route will also create a ‘scale up’ stream, allowing those with a job offer at the required skill level from a recognised UK scale-up to qualify for a fast track visa, without the need for sponsorship, meaning that in some cases employers should be able to fill vacant roles more quickly.

The extent to which businesses will benefit from this new route and the degree to which it will be a realistic alternative to the Skilled Worker route of course depends on the details and what attributes will be regarded as important enough to be awarded points for.

The International Sportsperson route

The current Tier 2 and Tier 5 sportsperson routes will be replaced in 2021 by a new International Sportsperson route.

The new single route will aim to simplify immigration for the sporting sector and will provide both short-term and long-term leave options to encourage the endorsement and sponsorship of overseas international sportspeople.

Family immigration routes

In recognition of the fact that there are currently several family routes and many routes to settlement, which can often be confusing for migrants, the Home Office intends to simplify the family, private life and settlement routes to make them easier to navigate. Again, we await the details to see if these aims are likely to be achieved.

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