UK government ministers and officials are thought to be reviewing the current system of visas and immigration rules to see what can be done to ease the labour shortage and help businesses grow. Adam McCulloch asks immigration law specialists what kind of changes are possible.
A shake-up of the UK’s immigration system is expected to be announced by Christmas, as the Liz Truss-led government grapples with how to address labour shortages at all skills levels and grow the economy, while still placating the Conservatives’ anti-immigration supporters.
The tensions caused by this were clear earlier this week when home secretary Suella Braverman, seemingly oblivious to the prime minister’s thinking, told The Spectator magazine she had “concerns” about a mooted trade deal with India because of migrant workers. She said: “I do have some reservations. Look at migration in this country – the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.”
Indian government officials reacted angrily and demanded Truss should disassociate herself from Braverman’s comments.
We have a good number of restaurant and hotel clients that are relying on overseas labour to stay afloat” – Jonathan Beech, Migrate UK
But what Braverman had articulated was surely the key sentiment behind the Conservative government’s immigration policy since Brexit in 2016: the need for strict control and minimum numbers and the relegation of business and public services’ needs in the order of priorities.
The result has seen an immigration system dependent on a number of specific visas, designed to attract the “brightest and the best” to work in the UK.
It hasn’t really worked, says Rose Carey, partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys. She says: “The current lengthy and convoluted visa process discourages investment and new business into the UK. Business owners are finding it increasingly difficult and laborious to obtain a visa, which stymies growth.”
For Carey, Truss ought to remove or reduce the English language requirement for some roles and add more jobs to the shortage occupation list as the lower salary requirement makes it easier for employers to sponsor more workers. She says the salary level is still too high for some regions, “especially Northern Ireland, where migrants would need to be paid more than the local workforce in most roles to qualify for sponsorship, and it doesn’t solve the fact that there is no effective visa category for entrepreneurs and investors”.
Another immigration lawyer, Yash Dubal at A Y & J Solicitors, referring to the Truss-Braverman divergence, adds that businesses have been left in the dark by confused messaging. “The opposing messages are confusing businesses which are struggling to fill vacancies from the UK labour force and urgently need to bring in foreign workers,” he says. “Firms just want to know they can employ the people they need. The government needs to make any decisions about changes quickly as firms are desperate to fill vacancies.”
With unemployment in the UK at its lowest level since 1974, labour shortages are a growing problem, leaving many businesses with no option but to look overseas for workers, Dubal says. But the Conservative party will be very wary of numbers of migrants from non-EU countries such as India, Nigeria and the Philippines increasing, with immigrants from these countries tending to arrive with larger families.
Business owners are finding it increasingly difficult and laborious to obtain a visa, which stymies growth” – Rose Carey, Charles Russell Speechlys
Will changing the shortage occupation list help?
Much of the speculation about “changes to the supply side” have centred on expanding the shortage occupation list. While this would be welcome according to Smruti Jeyanandhan, senior associate at Bates Wells, it can’t replace the benefits to the UK that freedom of movement brought when the country was part of the EU single market.
On the other hand, she says, “making changes to the list can offer short-term relief to UK business at this time of crisis”. The current system is not fit for purpose, she adds, and needs to be replaced by “a system that is more agile, one that is not frightened to change as and when circumstances require”.
Manipulating the list also inevitably favours some sectors above others. Jeyanandhan says: “With many IT occupation codes currently on the shortage occupation list, there’s an argument that the tech sector is better catered for than the hospitality sector. Both sectors, as well as many others, would benefit from substantive removal of red tape bureaucracy, which should be the focus of the Truss changes.
“The introduction of the Skilled Worker route on 1 December 2020, was a step in the right direction, with the door ajar, it is time to show the world that we are open for business and walk through with confidence.”
Jeyanandhan’s colleague at Bates Wells, Chetal Patel, points out that “many sectors are still struggling to recover after the end of free movement, particularly those which need low skilled workers.”
For Patel the shortage occupation list “is not the missing piece of the jigsaw”.
She adds that if growth is the priority for Truss’s government the new strategy will need significant alterations: “While our immigration system has become more streamlined in recent years, it’s still wrapped up in bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a headache for any employer to contemplate.”
Many sectors are still struggling to recover after the end of free movement, particularly those which need low skilled workers” – Chetal Patel, Bates Wells
Jonathan Beech, managing director of immigration law firm Migrate UK, says the changes to the UK immigration system from December 2020, when the skill level for qualifying job codes was lowered along with salary thresholds, were a positive step. But he agrees with Jeyanandhan and Patel that despite the improvement, “this is no replacement for the attractiveness of free movement of EU and EEA plus Swiss citizens, and their ability to work in sectors and jobs unfavoured by settled citizens”.
Costs a major deterrent
Costs are a major stumbling block to attracting the workers the UK needs, says Beech: “To really benefit, certain jobs should be exempt from the Immigration Skills Charge [between £364 and £1,000 per year of sponsorship – payable by the employer], plus the costs of the NHS Surcharge [between £470 and £624 per person per year] that is normally covered by the employee.
“This is a huge undertaking for families especially since the charge is payable up front for the entire duration of stay. Coupled with UK living costs at present, the UK may not be a viable option at all unless these costs are addressed.”
Another scheme that could be adjusted to encourage more workers to look at the UK, says Beech, is the seasonal worker route: “This could be updated to include other sectors under a quota scheme. The route has lower Home Office fees but is short term only. This could be a sticking point for attracting workers.”
Beech predicts that “the sticking plaster option” of amending the shortage occupation list will be used up until the next financial year. Ministers are likely to sell this to the electorate on the basis there is a true shortage, he says, and the changes do not represent a free for all. He says: “There would need to be an ‘elevated status’ rhetoric alongside real-life testimonials of businesses that are folding. We have a good number of restaurant and hotel clients that are relying on overseas labour to stay afloat.”
Whatever changes may be afoot there is no question that for many UK businesses in the grips of a labour shortage, new arrivals cannot come soon enough. But with the UK economy suffering and with its lack of freedom of movement – which is on offer just across the English Channel and in Ireland – it could be that ministers’ scope for action is limited. And that’s if the current government survives long enough to make such decisions.