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More flexibility for business visitors from today

On 7 December 2023, the Government announced changes to the immigration rules relating to visitors with a new statement of changes. In short, the changes have created some flexibility to the permitted work-related activities that visitors can undertake and are primarily aimed at those conducting business in the UK. While this expands the activities that visitors can do without requiring sponsorship or seeking another form of immigration permission, we hope (one can hope!) that more changes are on the horizon.

We outline below the main changes which take effect today (31 January 2024). Today’s amendments are anticipated to be part of a series of measures aimed at creating more flexibility to short-term mobility, with further announcements to come later in the year.

Intra-corporate activities

The scope of permitted business activities has been expanded for those employed overseas, who enter the UK to undertake work for a branch or entity within the same corporate group.

The previous rules permitted individuals to advise and consult, troubleshoot, provide training and share skills and knowledge. However this was restricted to a specific internal project with UK employees of the same corporate group and did not allow for any direct work with clients.

The new changes still require the activity to be related to a specific internal project with UK employees. However, individuals can now work directly with clients, provided that:

  • the individual’s movement remains in an intra-corporate setting;
  • any client-facing activity is incidental to their employment overseas; and
  • such activities are required for the delivery of a project or service by the UK branch of the overseas employer, and are not part of a project or service being delivered directly to the UK client by the employer overseas.

The explanatory memorandum confirms that such work cannot amount to the offshoring of a project or service to the overseas employer. Given the number of specific qualifications provided, this amendment may prove unlikely to have a significant impact on visitor activities.  

Remote working

The rules now make it explicit that visitors can work remotely whilst in the UK, as long as this is not the primary purpose of their visit. It is worth noting that working remotely was already permitted – the Visit caseworker guidance (version 13.0) makes it clear that visitors can undertake activities relating to their overseas employment remotely, such as responding to emails or answering phone calls.

While an express provision may seem helpful, arguably, it could be viewed as more prescriptive and therefore problematic for those working in the UK remotely in a context other than “relating to their employment overseas”, such as those who are self-employed overseas.  

Flight crew

Between March and October, a pilot or cabin crew member can work temporarily in the UK under the Civil Aviation Authority approved Wet Lease Agreement, provided the individuals remain employed and paid overseas. Flight crew members were already permitted to do this under a concession outside of the rules, so this, in effect, appears to be a tidying up of the rules to make this a permitted activity under the Visitor provisions.

Scientists, academics and researchers

Scientists and researchers may now take part in formal exchange arrangements with UK counterparts. This was previously only expressly permitted for academics.

Scientists, researchers and certain academics can also now conduct research in the UK as part of their visit. Previously, scientists and researchers could only conduct independent research, and academics could only conduct research for their own purposes if they were on sabbatical leave from their home institution. Not all academics will benefit from this change, for example, those in the UK for 12 months will continue to face restrictions on research work.

Legal professionals

The list of permitted activities for legal professionals has been significantly expanded, and, interestingly, appears to be a non-exhaustive list. Previously, legal activities were limited to: an expert witness giving evidence in court; other witnesses attending a court hearing where summoned; and allowing an overseas lawyer to advise a UK-based client on specific international litigation or an international transaction. Overseas lawyers can now provide legal services whilst visiting the UK, including:

  • advice (note that this is no longer restricted to a UK based client);
  • providing advocacy for a court or hearing, or appearing in arbitrations or courts (where qualified or where the jurisdiction allows a short-term call);
  • acting as an arbitrator, mediator or expert witness;
  • conferences and teaching;
  • litigation; and
  • transactional legal services, including drafting contracts.

Whilst overseas lawyers cannot receive payment from a UK source (unless the activities fall within the scope of Permitted Paid Engagements – see further below), in certain circumstances they are permitted to bill a UK client for time spent in the UK as per the existing provisions under V 4.6(d) – one anticipates that this provision may be more widely used given the expansion of the permitted activities for overseas lawyers.

Permitted Paid Engagements (PPE)

Individuals invited to the UK for a specific paid engagement have been able to visit the UK for up to one month for this purpose. These include:

  • highly qualified academics, examining students or participating in selection panels;
  • experts giving lectures in their subject area;
  • pilot examiners assessing UK-based pilots;
  • qualified lawyers providing advocacy for legal proceedings, where invited by a client;
  • professional artists, entertainers and musicians invited by a UK-based creative organisation, agent or broadcaster; and
  • professional sportspersons invited by a UK based sports organisation, agent or broadcaster.

Speakers at conferences are now included in the PPE list, enabling them to receive payment from a UK source. This is a long-awaited change. Having seen a number of refusals in the past (in particular, non-visa nationals at port) for those visiting for short speaking engagements, this provision is a welcome one.

PPE was previously one of four types of visitors. As of today, PPE no longer falls under a separate visitor type and now sits within the Standard Visitor category. Those entering for the purpose of PPE will therefore be granted entry as a Standard Visitor, rather than specifically for PPE.

In practice, this should mean that those entering for PPE and other reasons may be issued permission for up to six months, rather than one month (although those undertaking PPE activities shall still need to ensure the relevant requirements are met and evidence held, such as an invitation from a UK- based organisation).

It is worth noting that the amended provision requires anyone entering for PPE reasons to complete the PPE within 30 days of entry – the timing of the visit will therefore need to be carefully managed. Subject to the reasons for the visit, the individual may then be able to remain in the UK as a visitor for the remaining period.

Is the future looking positive for visitors?

If the aim is to make the UK an accessible and attractive place to conduct business, then more can be done to improve the current state of the Visitor rules. The implications of falling foul of the Visitor requirements are harsh and, at worst, can include re-entry bans of up to 10 years and criminal sanctions. While an alternative solution might be to obtain sponsorship with a UK-based organisation, this is often impractical and expensive.

Perhaps this is overly optimistic, but today’s changes, albeit relatively small, hopefully indicate a move towards a necessarily more flexible and pragmatic approach for those visiting the UK undertaking work-related activities. At a time of more stringent measures planned in other areas of the rules (increase in salary thresholds, expansion of the civil penalty regime), the Visitor route – with further changes on the horizon – might be one area which offers a glimmer of light, at least for those wishing to do business in the UK in the short-term.

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Zeena Luchowa

Zeena is a Partner at Laura Devine Immigration in London. She is a listed lawyer in the Legal 500 directory and has experience in dealing with both personal and business immigration matters.