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What does the Truss government have in store for work-based immigration?


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With the government’s controversial mini-budget causing economic turmoil, Liz Truss has been steadfast that her aim is to boost economic growth in the United Kingdom. Central to achieving this will be a series of key reforms to the work-based immigration system. The government logic may be that the international talent needed to grow the economy, who will be attracted to work in the country by the announcement of lower taxes, need an easy visa to live here.

Without doubt, the work-based visa system needs reforming. Many industries are still struggling to recover from the blow dealt by the end of free movement and the current framework of the points-based system is often short of solutions, particularly when it comes to those sectors who need to source low skilled workers.

So the news we reported this week of imminent immigration policy announcements is intriguing. With the economic and political situation so fluid, and fierce opposition to these reforms already coming from Cabinet members, it is anyone’s guess whether these measures will eventually make it into law. It is nevertheless a worthwhile exercise to see what a Truss government could have in store.

Amendments to the shortage occupation list

Truss is planning to expand the shortage occupation list to help businesses fill jobs. For the uninitiated, the shortage occupation list can be found in Appendix Shortage Occupation to the Immigration Rules and contains a list of jobs where employers face a shortage of suitable candidates from within the settled workforce. Appearance on the list, therefore, confers benefits on workers looking to apply for a skilled worker visa, which is the main sponsorship option available. 

Amending the shortage occupation list is one of those easy political mantras that gets trotted out by politicians wanting to look like they have solutions to immigration problems (see the ‘introduction of an Australian Points Based System’ as another prime example). However, its role within the skilled worker visa system has been diminished since the visa was rebranded and reformed in late 2020.

Appearance on the shortage occupation list previously enabled an employer to avoid the inconvenience of advertising a role in line with the resident labour market test. There used to be a cap placed on the numbers of people who could apply for visas under the former Tier 2 General visa and shortage occupation roles were given priority when the limit was reached. There was also no need to meet the salary threshold for settlement after five years. This cut processing times substantially, which was a major plus point for employers.

When the Tier 2 General visa was rebranded as the skilled worker visa the resident labour market test was dropped. The shortage occupation list was maintained, but its key benefits are now much more limited. Jobs on the list can benefit from lower salary thresholds under the tradable points criteria, reduced by 20% to £20,480 or 80% of the going rate for that particular occupation code, whichever is the higher. There are lower visa application fees. For example, the standard application for a 3-year visa is reduced from £625 to £479. And there is a lower salary threshold of £20,480 as opposed to £25,600 for settlement applications. But that’s about it. The shortage occupation list is no longer a major game changer for employers looking to recruit large pools of talent from abroad.

So the news that Truss would like to reform the list is not revolutionary, particularly when a review by the Migration Advisory Committee has already been commissioned. The scope of the current review is fairly limited, the Committee has been asked to look at what roles should be included and the salary thresholds that should apply to them, but were expressly told that lower skilled roles would only be added to the list in exceptional circumstances.

More could certainly be made of the shortage occupation list and the impact it could have on easing recruitment concerns, particularly for low skilled workers. Adding lower skilled care workers to the list earlier this year was a positive step forward, and there are more industries crying out for a similar concession.

The list could also provide more perks to incentivise workers into the UK. A shorter route to settlement would attract more applicants. Or, exemption from the immigration skills charges for employers would make a huge difference to the exorbitant fees they pay. Some bold thinking is required and one thing the Truss government cannot be accused of is being timid.

English language requirement

More interestingly, the reports over the weekend hinted that the Government may look to reform the English language requirement for the skilled worker visa. Applicants have to demonstrate that they can meet an English language requirement at Level B1 CEFR to successfully obtain a visa. The rule has come under increasing scrutiny, particularly since the skill level for the visa dropped to RQF level 3 (the equivalent to A levels) allowing more highly skilled ‘manual’ jobs to come within the sponsorship framework.

It creates a problem for workers looking to take on these jobs. They may not be able to get visas because they do not have the skills to meet the English language requirement, in spite of the fact that their employers are already satisfied they have the level of language they need to do the job. This came into focus last year when there was a shortage of butchers in the country. Butchers are considered skilled enough for a skilled worker visa, but the English language requirement prevented them from obtaining visas. The government’s remedy was to hastily open a temporary visa route for them instead.

The English language requirement can also cause problems for those who have fluent English. The majority of skilled worker applicants from the EU, who lack degrees taught in English, now have to arrange a secure English language test (SELT) at an Home Office approved centre, a confusing and bewildering task which can cause delays and heighten levels of anxiety for applicants (and their immigration lawyers, to be honest).

English language skills are frequently cited by labour economists as being essential to promote integration and increase employability and earnings within migrant worker communities. There are, though, other safeguards that could be built into the immigration system to maintain this. 

English language skills are still a requirement for settlement. It could be introduced as a requirement for a visa extension rather than the initial grant of leave, which used to happen with the old Intra-company Transfer (ICT) visa. This would create an incentive for workers to improve if they are not up to scratch when they first arrive in the country, but crucially gives them the time and space to learn and develop their language skills. Some flexibility on the English language requirement is, therefore, good news for employers and applicants but its implementation will have to be finely balanced.

New visa for graduates from top global universities

Ok, so clearly this isn’t “new”. We all know the High Potential Individual visa launched this summer, offering a two-year visa for graduates from the top 50 global universities. We can therefore interpret that some extension to the route is on the cards. 

Again, this is some positive news. The current framework for the route is far too limited, and the universities it encompasses are largely North American with few in Europe. There are no Indian universities included in the list, despite India being one of the major providers of workers to the United Kingdom. Extending the visa to the top 100 global universities would at least make the route less marginal and more relevant.

But the government could again be bolder. Many of my clients talk wistfully of the former Highly Skilled Migrant Programme/Tier 1 General visa, which provided a true points-based visa. It allowed applicants to obtain a visa based on their own characteristics, including their age, salary, and qualifications. This relieved some of the burden that sponsorship places on employers who now have to shoulder the costs and risks associated with sponsoring overseas nationals.

The latent fear with points-based visas is that people will take on lower skilled work or become unemployed, which can scar careers. But there are levers that could be applied to avoid this. The new Scale Up visa has created a hybrid sponsored/unsponsored route and made indefinite leave to remain dependent on an applicant maintaining a certain level of salary. Something similar could be put in place for a new points-based route.

The leaked immigration proposals are largely positive. Arguably the government could be more radical, and there is scope to do more to help employers and applicants. The attempts to improve the current range of visa options may be a welcome change from the merry-go-round of new visas we saw during the last government. With the political clouds already turning dark for Liz Truss, these proposals may ultimately not see the light of day. It is to be hoped, though, that this liberal approach to immigration will outlast this current crisis, whomever ultimately stays in Number 10.

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Joanna Hunt

Joanna Hunt is a Partner and Head of Immigration at DAC Beachcroft. She advises and supports a range of businesses and individuals with their immigration needs, with emphasis on sponsorship and work based visas. She is contactable on johunt@dacbeachcroft.com and tweets from @JoannaHunt12