Employers struggling with skills gaps in the UK should revisit the UK work visa system because recent changes have made applying “infinitely easier” than before Brexit, immigration lawyers say.
The government has reduced the thresholds for bringing in skilled workers under employer-sponsored routes and created additional, lower-cost, non-sponsored routes for applicants from countries such as India, South Korea and Japan.
Audrey Elliott, an employment law partner at Eversheds Sutherland, said: “Immigration for work is controlled but the ability to bring people into the UK under the skilled-worker route is infinitely easier than it was pre-Brexit. Skills levels and salary thresholds have gone down and the resident labour market test has gone but it does require process and cost.”
Her call comes as the government prepares to offer a new scale-up visa for fast-growing companies to hire foreign workers with minimal paperwork and cost, while also giving workers the ability to move between employers once in the UK and potentially indefinite leave to settle.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said last month: “I believe we now have the public’s backing to create one of the world’s most attractive visa regimes for entrepreneurs and highly skilled people.”
Official figures show that there were 239,987 work-related visas granted last year, more than double 2020 and a quarter higher than 2019. Employers made 121,386 applications to be certified for the sponsor route, up 14 per cent on 2018 figures. Health and social work employers were the heaviest users, followed by IT and communications.
Louisa Cole, a principal associate at Eversheds Sutherland, said: “There is definitely a shift in tone. Historically there was more of a focus on restriction of numbers: caps. Now we are seeing skills shortages emerge and so the government is broadening existing categories to help businesses to bring in talent.”
Elliott added that most businesses considering hiring from overseas were looking at registering with the Home Office to sponsor workers. Applying and then hiring under that route is costly — typically £10,000 per hire for a five-year, skilled-worker visa — but having the approval means that new applications are more certain and relatively quick, taking typically no longer than three months.
“We are seeing so many sponsor applications at the moment,” she said. “If you are seeing skills gaps coming up, in the same way you would think about getting an insurance policy it is business resilience thinking.” Smaller companies benefit from reduced registration and application fees.
For those looking to reduce costs further, perhaps to £2,000 and £3,000 per applicant, Eversheds Sutherland highlighted three non-sponsored routes for work visas that could help. The longstanding “backpacker” route into working in the UK for 18 to 30-year-olds, called the Youth Mobility scheme, remains attractive, it said. Up to 30,000 Australians, 13,000 New Zealanders, 6,000 Canadians, as well as smaller numbers of young people from Iceland, Monaco and San Marino, can use this scheme. A ballot system is also run twice yearly for applicants from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Cole said that the Youth Mobility route and a second visa specifically for graduates who have studied in the UK were attractive because they gave employers the opportunity to test out new hires for up to two years before deciding whether to sponsor them.
She added, however, that candidates in high demand were likely to favour job offers from employers able to provide sponsorship from day one as this would enable them to apply to settle indefinitely more quickly.
Cole advised employers to also keep an eye out for a new visa called the Indian Young Professionals route, which when available will give up to 3,000 people each year aged 30 or under a two-year work visa. Employers do not have to sponsor the individual, nor satisfy skill and salary thresholds.
The Home Office has come in for criticism over its handling of immigration applications from Ukrainians fleeing the war and wanting to join family in the UK.
Elliott said that despite the demands on the visa application process lawyers were not seeing any change to the time it takes to process employer or migrant worker visa applications at the Home Office visa unit, which is based in Sheffield.