UK vision of immigration branded 'blurred'

The UK government's thinking on immigration is "blurred to say the least", according to an immigration specialist at internationally recognised law firm Kingsley Napley.

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Writing in HR Magazine, Tim Richards, a professional support lawyer in the firm's immigration team, says that businesses were hoping last week's Autumn Statement would contain plans for a more liberal immigration regime to make it easier for employers to bring in the overseas talent they badly need.

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Immigration policy not working

In the end, there was no mention of immigration in the statement, despite calls for it to be included from business groups, including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the British Chambers of Commerce.Mr Richards points out that a recent CBI survey found that three-quarters of UK companies were suffering skills shortages.But he says: "There are different stances within government on what to do – from reducing numbers on the one hand, through to relaxing rules on the other."If some government ministers - including the current Home Secretary (Suella Braverman) - have their Brexit-minded way, far from a relaxation of rules for growth, there would be a return to the ill-fated net migration targets of old."This was the arbitrary target of getting the difference between people leaving and moving to the UK down to 'the tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands'.”This policy never did work, he says, and now it is clear that UK employers are relying on the recruitment of non-EU and EU citizens "like never before".

Net migration figures revised upwards

Mr Richards' comments coincided with a revised estimate of inward migration by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which substantially increased the total of foreign workers expected to arrive in the UK next year.The OBR now forecasts net migration into the UK will be 224,000 in 2023, up from its previous forecast in March of 136,000. It added that from 2026, net migration into the UK would settle at 205,000 a year, up 60 per cent on its previous estimate of 129,000.“This upward revision reflects evidence of sustained strength in inward migration since the post-Brexit migration regime was introduced," said the OBR.“It also reflects discussions with the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee over what levels of net migration for the next several years might be consistent with the current migration regime."

Recommendations for goverment

Looking at the options for relaxing immigration rules to encourage economic growth, Mr Richards pointed out that press reports suggested the government was considering expanding the shortage occupation list (SOL); relaxing English language requirements, possibly for certain sectors or jobs on the SOL; and expanding the High Potential Individual visa route for students from top global universities."All of these would be sensible measures. What we certainly don’t need is routes which look good on paper but do not transfer at all well to real-life - such as the infrequently used UK Expansion Worker (visa) and the almost never used Scale-up (visa) for which there is currently only one registered sponsor," commented Mr Richards.He said that, based on feedback Kingsley Napley had received from businesses, employers would welcome the following initiatives:
  • A genuine unsponsored option: A return to an unsponsored route which encompasses not just educational qualifications but also for example earning potential, specialist experience and (discrimination aside) age. This could give employers wanting to recruit international staff a genuine usable alternative option to the Skilled Worker category.
  • Expansion of the Youth Mobility Scheme to EU citizens: The hospitality sector has suffered enormously from the end of free movement and would benefit from this, albeit it would require reciprocal arrangements for British citizens travelling to EU countries.
  • Innovator category enhancement: Priti Patel mooted this was on the cards back in February but alas changes have not yet been forthcoming. This means the UK is effectively closed for business to entrepreneurs seeking to establish a business here.
  • Reduced cost for employers using the immigration system: The prohibitively high cost of sponsoring a work visa these days (the best part of £10,000 for a 5-year visa) needs to be addressed so employers can plug the gaps in their staffing more cost effectively, especially in difficult economic times.
  • Improved service standards: 2022 has been a turbulent year for the UK Visas and Immigration department with redeployment of staff due to Ukraine, post-Brexit immigration applications really kicking in after the pandemic and staffing shortages (the irony here being hard to ignore). The standard processing time for applications submitted has doubled to 16 weeks which is viewed by many as unacceptable.
"With recent immigration headlines focusing on small boat crossings, illegal immigration and the Rwanda scheme, it is easy for the business case for immigration to be overlooked," Mr Richards added."The business community view is that going for growth calls for a 'pragmatic approach to immigration' (as demanded by the CBI).”

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