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Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visas doubled to 2,000 per year


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The Home Secretary recently announced that the number of people who can be accepted under the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) immigration route would double, from 1,000 to 2,000 each year.

The exceptional talent visa regime does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a route for recognised or emerging leaders in certain fields to enter the UK to live and work.

The “exceptional” criteria

The fields in which individuals can show their talents exist are limited to science, the humanities, engineering, the arts and digital technology. The Home Office provide an overview of the route on its website, as well as detailed guidance for applicants.

In order to apply for the visa, applicants must receive an endorsement from a “Competent Body”. Which one will depend on the particular talent of the applicant. They are listed as follows:

  • Arts Council England – for arts and culture applications
  • The British Academy – for humanities and social science applications
  • The Royal Society – for natural sciences and medical science research applications
  • The Royal Academy of Engineering – for engineering applications
  • Tech City UK – for digital technology applications

Each Competent Body (with the three “science bodies” loosely grouped together) has a different set of criteria which applicants must meet before receiving an endorsement.

Prizes mean points

The threshold for applicants to show that their talents are “exceptional” is high.

For instance, the criteria for someone in the scientific field include an internationally recognised prize, membership of a national academy, and a letter of recommendation from an “eminent” individual. Those awarded research fellowships from certain organisations (e.g. Cancer Research UK) can benefit from an accelerated endorsement process.

Similarly, applying to the Arts Council for work based on film, television, animation, post production or visual effects will normally require a nomination for or award of a significant prize (e.g. BAFTA or Academy award), or exhibitions, performances or significant media attention within the sub-set of arts, museums or galleries.

Tech nation

The announcement by the Home Secretary was greeted with particular enthusiasm by the digital technology sector. It is in this strand within the Exceptional Talent route that has seen the most significant interest, with a huge rise in applications in the last few years.

Applicants must show that they have a proven track record within the tech sector or have contributed to the advancement of work in the field. The route is open both to those on the technical side (programmers, developers etc), and to those involved in the business of digital technology (with experience of scaling digital products for market, taking a tech company through an IPO etc).

Evidence required to be submitted with applications to this Competent Body includes a detailed personal statement, CV, letters of recommendation from recognised experts, and up to ten further documents showing that an applicant meets the criteria set out in the guidance.

A look forward?

Fees in this route are comparatively low: £292 for the endorsement application, and the same for the second stage visa application by an individual who has been endorsed. The percentage of visas granted for those with an endorsement is in the high 90s.

Noteworthy, also, is the outsourcing of the endorsement decision to an industry body, which is almost certainly likely to be in a better position to make an assessment of what is relevant (and what is not) than a Home Office case worker.

Third party endorsement was recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee in respect of entrepreneur visas a few years ago (see paragraph 8.32 of its report), but no changes have been made to date.

For those granted an exceptional talent visa, there are very few restrictions when they get to the UK. Applicants can choose how long they wish their visa to last: between one and five years. The guidance is rather gushing:

We recognise that such talented individuals should have few restrictions on their economic activity once here. If you qualify, the route allows you to work and change employers, or to be self-employed, without the need for further authorisation or to be sponsored for employment in a specific post.

The Exceptional Talent regime shows that the UK is capable of designing a relatively nonsense-free immigration route, where photocopies of documents are permitted for endorsement, fees are not exorbitant, and sector-specific experts make the assessments.

When the UK is fully exposed to the global fight for talent after Brexit – from which, until now, we have been insulated by the free movement of European workers – we are going to need a more inviting immigration system, with greater flexibility for all of those coming to live and work in the UK.

For the framers of that new system, the principles of the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route would be a good place to start.

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Nick Nason

Nick is a lawyer at Edgewater Legal, simplifying immigration law for individuals and businesses.