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The Intra-company Transfer visa could be getting a new lease of life
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The Intra-company Transfer (ICT) route has seemed increasingly redundant since the launch of the Points Based Immigration System last year. The Skilled Worker route became simpler and easier to use, while the abolition of the resident labour market test removed ICT’s unique selling point. With the number of ICT applications dropping accordingly, it was at risk of becoming irrelevant.
But rumours of ICT’s death may have been greatly exaggerated. The Migration Advisory Committee’s review of Intra-company Transfers suggests some modest reforms which, if implemented, should preserve some of the route’s relevance to businesses with globally mobile workforces.
The report also gives a flavour of what the new Global Business Mobility visa, due to be launched next spring, might have in store. This will create an overarching route for workers on temporary assignment to the UK, incorporating the existing Intra-Company Transfer, Representative of an Overseas Business and Temporary Worker – International Agreement visas, plus a fourth new one. More on this in a moment.
Intra-company Transfer: the basics
ICT, like its better-known and more heavily used cousin Skilled Worker, is a sponsorship visa. The visa holder cannot work for just anyone; they can only work in the job, and for the employer, detailed in their application.
The scope of ICT visa is more limited than the Skilled Worker, though. It is for people already employed overseas by a multi-national company who are being transferred into the UK. The route was envisaged for temporary work assignments, so the visa is time-limited. Holders cannot apply for settlement from this visa route and they are limited to a stay of five years in every six (or nine years in every ten if they earn above £73,900 a year). You are now allowed to switch from ICT into the Skilled Worker route from within the UK, but time spent on ICT will not count towards the five years required for settlement.
There are two types of ICT visa: the Intra-Company Transfer visa proper, and the Intra-Company Graduate Trainee visa. Applicants need to have worked overseas for the company for 12 months for the main ICT visa, and three months for the Graduate trainee version. If they earn, again, above £73,900 then there is no minimum period of overseas employment.
The eligibility requirements are more onerous than the Skilled Worker visa. The job in question must have a skill level of RQF level 6 — degree-level, essentially — and the minimum salary threshold is £41,500 (£23,000 for Graduate Trainees). The major remaining benefit of ICT over Skilled Worker is the fact that applicants do not need to meet an English language requirement.
Applications have fallen in recent years. ICT was overtaken by Tier 2 (General), the forerunner of Skilled Worker, in 2016.
The MAC report’s recommendations
There was never any question that ICT should be kept. Apart from anything else, having it is a requirement under the General Agreement on Trade in Services and other trade agreements. The question is how it should be designed.
The biggest change suggested is to allow ICT visa holders to apply for settlement and to count time spent on ICT towards settlement on other routes. As workers do not often know their future intentions when they apply for their visa, or change their minds, the MAC thinks it is only fair that settlement is an option for them — particularly as ICT visa holders tend to be big contributors to the UK economy. Some employers fear that this could lead to higher attrition rates, but the MAC thinks this can be managed by employment contracts.
The lack of a settlement option is the main reason that migrants try to avoid ICT. If the Home Office follows the MAC’s recommendations, this will certainly reinvigorate the route and cut out unnecessary and expensive switching applications.
It would have been easy to drop the minimum skill level to be in line with the Skilled Worker visa, as many respondents to the call for evidence requested. The MAC has resisted this temptation, recommending that it stay at degree level. A drop in skill level would broaden the eligible jobs far beyond the specialists and senior managers it was originally designed for.
Rejecting calls to decrease the salary thresholds, the review instead recommends a slight increase, to £42,400 for the main ICT route. For the Graduate Trainee category, it suggests a slight drop to harmonise it with the “new entrant” rate for Skilled Worker, at £20,480. Perks for high earners would continue to kick in at £73,900.
The MAC admits that it has little evidence to justify the current salary levels but says that as the ICT is aimed at senior specialists, a high salary threshold makes sense. The committee does point out that the Home Office should review these thresholds every year to adjust for inflation. A sensible and unarguable point — if bad news for immigration lawyers already struggling to remember the ever-changing minutiae of the rules.
Immigration skills charge
Again the MAC recommends maintaining the status quo so that employers using ICT are still liable for the immigration skills charge, a sponsorship tax. It does urge a review of the charge itself, which was introduced in 2015 when the government’s overarching policy was to cut net migration. If this policy has changed, the tax may not be necessary.
Keeping the charge in place for the time being means that it could be used as a sweetener in future trade deals. Under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union, for example, EU citizens will be exempt from the start of 2023.
As the lack of an English language requirement was repeatedly cited by respondents as one of ICT’s key advantages, there was no appetite for introducing one.
Respondents also articulated some of the difficulties with the English language requirement for the Skilled Worker route. The MAC recommends that the Home Office take a look at the administration of English language tests to ensure the visa process is as smooth as possible. This could be an area that sees some movement.
Business mobility visa options
The MAC was also asked for its view on the UK’s “mobility offer” for businesses looking to set up a UK subsidiary or send secondees to British businesses who are party to a high value contract. This will be branded as the Global Business Mobility route, due to be launched next spring as a kind of umbrella category for several temporary business visas.
Firstly the MAC recommends keeping the Representative of an Overseas Business visa. This is a non-sponsored work route, enabling a overseas company to send one senior exec to the UK to set up a branch of that company here. The MAC thinks that sending one person is sufficient for these purposes and points to the revealing statistic that 77% of subsidiaries set up in the UK since 2018 have one or zero employees.
The Home Office had asked for advice on a possible “Team Subsidiary” visa for sending a group of overseas representatives into the UK. The MAC was non-committal:
Given that any recommendation we make within this area will be based on more or less arbitrary criteria, we recommend that a Team Subsidiary (TS) route be trialled over a two-year period and that an extensive set of data be collected over the trial period to allow for subsequent evaluation and refinement of the criteria.
During the trial, companies should have to secure a sponsor licence based on a flexible set of criteria; only five applicants per business should be allowed; and they should have to meet the eligibility criteria for the skilled worker visa. The visa should also be capped at two years.
Secondly, the Home Office wanted recommendations on the ability of an “overseas business to send teams of workers… to undertake a secondment in relation to a high-value contract for goods and services”. The MAC reckoned that the “vast majority” of such businesses can use the rules on permitted activities on a visit visa. But in a few cases involving very high value contracts, the Home Office has apparently been applying cloak-and-dagger discretion to allow secondees to stay for longer than the six months allowed as a visitor.
The MAC suggests that this discretionary practice be brought into the open so everyone can benefit. But it would only apply to contracts of more than £50 million, so this will be niche at best. Bearing this in mind, the MAC urges the government to consider a new visa option for short-term assignments, for workers who currently fall between the stools of the ICT and visit visa rules.
The MAC’s recommendations are positive but not revolutionary. What is interesting is that the direction of travel is now firmly toward making work-based immigration routes more flexible, not less. If the government takes the MAC up on the recommendations to re-examine the immigration skills charge and English language rules, then some meaningful change could be on the cards.