Immigration system to be modernised with sweeping new changes
The UK Government has published a Strategy Statement outlining its key delivery priorities for 2021 to 2022 and its vision for the UK’s border and immigration system in a post-Brexit world.
The Government’s strategy builds on the EU Settlement Scheme application process (which it describes as a ‘fully digital’ process, although some applicants do still need to make paper applications) and the changes already implemented in the UK’s new Points-Based System to set out a transformative agenda for the coming years.
The Strategy Statement reiterates some objectives which have been announced previously and summarises the changes to the immigration system made so far. Some additional routes and reforms are also mentioned but overall the Statement is light on detail. It is most helpful as a roadmap of the Government’s intentions for the following anticipated immigration reforms:
Applicants for the upcoming Graduate Route, opening on 1 July 2021, will not need to visit a physical appointment centre to provide their biometric data if they already hold a valid Biometric Residence Permit (BRP). Instead, they will be able to provide their identity using a ‘ChipChecker’ process with their BRP and by uploading a photo. Fingerprint biometrics already captured via the applicant’s Student route process will be re-used. This will allow the process to be completed fully online for most applicants and the application fee will be £700.
Once permission is granted, ‘visa nationals’ (i.e. those who require a visa for every entry to the UK) will be issued with a new BRP to facilitate travel, as well as access to an online service which will include evidence of their immigration status. ‘Non-visa nationals’ will only receive access to the online service to prove their status and will not receive a BRP. The online service will also be used to evidence right to work and rent, as well as allow data sharing across other Government departments to facilitate access to public services such as healthcare.
The Home Office aims to continue to roll out automated tax, PAYE and Companies House checks to identify sponsors and users for fast-track approvals and monitor compliance with salary requirements. It will introduce trust ratings for sponsors based on a track record of compliance to ensure a differentiated and targeted approach to sponsor and reporting duties.
It will introduce a dashboard on the Sponsor Management System (SMS) to help sponsors manage their population and see feedback on visa applications. It will also introduce a new ‘Skilled Worker Eligibility checking tool’ to make it easier for applicants to assess eligibility under the Skilled Worker visa route. This update to the SMS will be widely welcomed by sponsors and legal representatives managing the licence, who will have much improved visibility of the licence and sponsored workers’ immigration status. This eagerly anticipated improvement is long overdue since the creation of the online SMS in 2008.
The end of the Brexit transition period has seen many new sponsors and smaller companies being added to the register of licensed sponsors. Many new sponsors will never have had to interact with the UK immigration system before and may be facing sponsorship fees and sponsor reporting obligations for the first time. In response, the Home Office has committed to establishing a service to support small and micro-businesses and reviewing fees for those who use the sponsorship system.
A further roadmap is expected in summer 2021 with further details of the proposed reforms to the sponsorship system.
New unsponsored route for highest skilled
Previous policy papers have confirmed the Government’s intention to introduce a new unsponsored route, but details remain pending. The Strategy Statement confirms that this unsponsored points-based route will be launched in spring 2022 (the first time a proposed date for this route has been announced) and will focus on the highest skilled and academic elite. No further details on this route are provided, except for confirmation that the route will introduce a ‘scale up’ stream allowing those with a job offer at the required skill from a recognised UK start-up to qualify for a fast-track visa without needing sponsorship. How this will work in practice remains unclear.
Global Business Mobility Route
A new, single sponsored Global Business Mobility route intended to simplify the UK immigration offering for businesses is expected to be delivered by spring 2022. This route will reform and expand existing routes by incorporating existing provisions for intra-company transfers, the UK’s trade commitments in relation to contractual service supplies and independent professionals, and employees of an overseas business establishing a UK branch or subsidiary. It will also include a new provision to accommodate import and export-related secondments.
A new International Sportsperson route will replace existing Tier 2 and Tier 5 routes. This route will have a fully digital online application process for European Economic Area (EEA) nationals (as with the Skilled Worker route). Non-EEA nationals will only need to attend a visa application centre to submit their biometrics on their first application. Any further applications on this route will then re-use biometrics.
Temporary worker routes
A fully digital process with ChipChecker facility will be introduced for EEA nationals for the remainder of the temporary work routes including creative workers, religious workers, and a range of Government Authorised Exchange schemes.
Electronic Travel Authorisation
As previously announced, all travellers to the UK (except British and Irish nationals) will need to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) prior to travel as an additional security measure. This is similar to the ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorization’ (ESTA) system in the United States of America, and the European Union is also expected to launch a version of digital travel authorisation in 2022. The ETA requirement is expected to be phased in by 2024 and is part of a wider universal ‘permission to travel’ requirement which will require everyone except British and Irish nationals to seek permission before travelling to the UK. Permission is expected to be issued digitally, and application decisions are expected to utilise automation and data sharing technology.
The use of electronic gates (e-gates) is also intended to be expanded to more nationalities.
Use of National Identity Cards
From 1 October 2021, most EU, EEA and Swiss nationals will need a passport to travel to the UK and will be unable to use an EU, EEA or Swiss ID card to facilitate entry. Those who have applied to the EU Settlement Scheme by 30 June 2021 but not received a decision, or who otherwise have protected rights under the Citizens’ Rights Agreements (such as Frontier Workers) will still be able to use ID cards until 31 December 2025. However, travel with a passport is highly recommended even for these individuals to avoid potential disruption at the UK border.
Border crossing technology is also expected to be improved at the UK border to allow all Border Force staff to check at primary control points if an individual has applied for, or been granted, status under the EU Settlement Scheme.
Family and Settlement Routes
The Strategy Statement reiterates the Government’s intention to simplify these routes and provide a more streamlined process with consistent evidence requirements. However, no additional details are provided.
The Strategy Statement aims to support the Government’s key priorities including:
- Introducing new and reformed immigration routes that support its ‘Global Britain’ vision and ‘Build Back Stronger’ economic strategy
- Simplifying existing systems and processes to make them as user-friendly as possible
- Moving to digital systems for visa applications and border control resulting in a fully digital end-to-end user experience and
- Introducing a universal permission to travel requirement for all travellers to the UK (except British and Irish citizens) by utilising increased automation
However, overall the Statement poses more questions than it answers and reiterates previously announced changes while providing little additional detail. Nevertheless, it serves as a useful roadmap of the key changes to look out for in 2021–2022. The move by the UKVI towards utilising digital technology should hopefully streamline processes and enable businesses to bring in highly skilled workers more easily.
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