UK Immigration policy – significant changes on the horizon

I’ve just taken up a new role heading the immigration team at Burness Paull. With over 40% of the firm’s work having an international element to it, there is no shortage of immigration and visa work to keep us busy. Looking ahead, there are some significant changes on the horizon that all UK businesses need to be alert to and I thought it might be useful to have a quick round up of some of these.

MAC reports – International Students & Brexit

The Migration Advisory Committee recently issued two rather significant reports – one looking at international students and the other looking at how the UK will deal with EU nationals after Brexit. On the international student front, the report recognises their importance in terms of the UK’s industrial strategy and the vital role they play in research and innovation within the economy. In some rather positive recommendations, they recommend that it is made much easier for employers to recruit international graduates.

On the Brexit front, the report makes some rather interesting recommendations. The key highlight is that post-Brexit, EU nationals coming to the UK should fall into the same visa system that is currently in place for non-EU nationals. On one view, that makes sense and the recommendations are rather predictable.

The recommendations have been widely criticised, though the reality is that many sectors will have much more flexibility when recruiting international staff. Whilst minimum salary levels will remain, the skill level required for sponsorship might drop significantly, meaning that employers that cannot currently recruit staff at the moment will be able to do so moving forward. Sectors such as hospitality, healthcare, fisheries etc will be the key winners of this, though businesses in all sectors need to start thinking about talent strategies moving forward as many might be caught out by salary requirements for EU nationals post Brexit.

New Start Up visa

We are expecting more details to come out shortly about a new start up visa that has been announced and is due to go live in spring 2019. The push on this has primarily come from the tech sector, though the scheme is expected to be much broader and is aimed at attracting entrepreneurs and business founders to set up their businesses in the UK.

It is expected that accelerators, incubators and other business organisations could act as endorsers or sponsors for this route and anyone interested in exploring the possibility of becoming an endorser organisation should be engaging now. It has been mooted that some level of funding would be required in order to qualify, though early recommendations are that it could be as low as £20,000.

Tier 2 cap

Between December 2017 and August 2018, employers in all sectors have struggled massively to obtain UK visas to bring international staff from abroad because of the annual cap on the number of visas coming through this route. In some months, only those employers paying more than £60k were able to get staff into the UK.

This issue has left the perception that visas can and do act as a barrier to business and the unpredictability of the system will have lasting damage. The government has made some tweaks to the system to try to ease the toughness of the cap, but the fact is that the cap remains and everyone is wondering whether and when it might hit again. It has however shown that businesses need to think more strategically about visas and immigration.

Increased Focus on Exceptional Talent

The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa is a great route, though like the University based Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) scheme, it has been under utilised. That is primarily because those sector based bodies with the entitlement to endorse applicants have set their barriers far too high in a bid to take an ultra cautious approach to endorsement, meaning that the schemes are not as effective as they could be.

Tech City UK are probably the endorser using this scheme most effectively, though that might simply be because they receive more applications giving the challenges the sector has with finding talent with the necessary cutting edge skills. We expect to see this route feature much more broadly given the challenges with the Tier 2 cap.

Tightening Investor visa rules

One of the issues that is on the radar is a toughening in approach to wealthy investors with Tier 1 (Investor) visas. This ‘golden visa’ route has been in the headlines recently after Roman Abramovich ran into problems trying to extend his, leading to him being stuck outside the UK despite having significant business interests here.

Cases like this, coupled with some fairly recent changes to the scheme requiring criminal record certificates from overseas and put in the context of deteriorating political relationships between the UK and some countries whose nationals use this scheme leave us wondering whether we are likely to see further tightening of this scheme.


Over the last 12 months, there have been more and more calls for UK immigration policy to be ‘regionalised’ or devolved. This has been resisted by the UK government thus far, though with precedents in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Manchester and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, this debate is unlikely to go away and is the key political narrative on immigration policy in certain parts of the UK.

There does not appear to be calls on this front coming from Northern Ireland, though that might change depending upon how the ‘Irish border’ issue is dealt with in the Brexit negotiations.

EU Nationals

Brexit is still due to happen in March 2019 and a scheme will be rolled out shortly for all EU nationals currently in the UK to formally register their status here. That scheme will become mandatory, probably by summer 2021. Business should now be thinking about what impact this might have on their existing workforce and what support can be offered to them now.

The ‘wait and see’ approach is not one that we have been encouraging and at the least, business should be considering their options on this front to retain staff.

Seasonal Agricultural Workers pilot

This is a new scheme announced by the government to address the concerns of the agricultural sector in relation to meeting their unskilled and low skilled labour requirements post-Brexit. It does have broader significance outside the agricultural sector, as it indicates that the UK government will again consider specific schemes designed to meet the labour needs of specific sectors.

Whilst everyone seems key on a sector based scheme for their own sector, one has to wonder which sectors we want to win from a competition between sectors – take your pick: education/finance/technology/textiles/healthcare/fisheries/hospitality/
construction/manufacturing/oil&gas etc.

For further information on any of these points or other immigration enquiries, please contact Jamie Kerr.

Jamie Kerr, partner, Burness Paull LLP

Jamie Kerr, partner, Burness Paull LLP