How might the autumn statement use the immigration system as a tool for growth?

Talk last week that prime minister Rishi Sunak is considering a growth visa for skilled migrants, an idea previously championed by Liz Truss, is likely to be welcomed by employers struggling to recruit talent.

In a recent report, the CBI found that 75% of UK companies are suffering labour shortages.

So will a liberalisation of immigration rules to aid growth be included in chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement?

Easing immigration:

Employers face a growing rift in government on hiring talent from abroad

Points-based immigration to open UK to highly-skilled workers

Salary floor for skilled foreign workers to be scrapped

This is quite difficult to predict actually because the government’s thinking on immigration is blurred to say the least. There are different stances within government on what to do – from reducing numbers on the one hand through to relaxing rules on the other.

Can we rule out a return to net migration targets?

If some government ministers, including the current home secretary, have their Brexit-minded way, far from a relaxation of rules for growth, there would be a return to the ill-fated net migration targets of old.

This was the arbitrary target of getting the difference between people leaving and moving to the UK down to “the tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands". 

The fact is however that this policy didn’t work. In the year to June 2022, as compared to the pre-pandemic year to December 2019, there has been a 96% increase in the main types of work-related visas applied for (including the Skilled Worker category).

In Q1 of 2022 stats show UK employers submitted 5,988 applications for work sponsor licences, compared to 1,223 in Q1 of 2019.

It is clear that UK employers are relying on and engaging with the UK immigration system like never before in the recruitment of non-EU and EU citizens. 

What are the options for relaxing immigration rules for growth?

Whether the government is eyeing a new standalone ‘Growth visa’ category or whether this is a reference to a collection of policy changes designed for growth remains to be seen.

Recent press reports suggest the government is considering expanding the shortage occupation list (SOL); relaxing English language requirements – possibly for certain sectors or jobs on the SOL; and expanding the High Potential Individual visa route for students from top global universities.

All of these would be sensible measures. What we certainly don’t need is routes which look good on paper but do not transfer at all well to real-life, such as the infrequently used UK Expansion Worker and the almost never used Scale-up for which there is currently only one registered sponsor.

What do employers need and want?

Based on feedback we receive, employers would welcome:

  • A genuine unsponsored option. A return to an unsponsored route which encompasses not just educational qualifications but also for example earning potential, specialist experience and (discrimination aside) age. This could give employers wanting to recruit international staff a genuine usable alternative option to the Skilled Worker category. 
  • Expansion of the Youth Mobility Scheme to EU citizens. The hospitality sector has suffered enormously from the end of free movement and would benefit from this, albeit it would require reciprocal arrangements for British citizens travelling to EU countries.
  • Innovator category enhancement. Priti Patel mooted this was on the cards back in February but alas changes have not yet been forthcoming. This means the UK is effectively closed for business to entrepreneurs seeking to establish a business here.
  • Reduced cost for employers using the immigration system. The prohibitively high cost of sponsoring a work visa these days (the best part of £10,000 for a 5-year visa) needs to be addressed so employers can plug the gaps in their staffing more cost effectively, especially in difficult economic times.
  • Improved service standards. 2022 has been a turbulent year for the UK Visas and Immigration department with redeployment of staff due to Ukraine, post-Brexit immigration applications really kicking in after the pandemic and staffing shortages (the irony here being hard to ignore). The standard processing time for applications submitted has doubled to 16 weeks which is viewed by many as unacceptable.

With recent immigration headlines focusing on small boat crossings, illegal immigration and the Rwanda scheme, it is easy for the business case for immigration to be overlooked.

Employers will be hoping on Thursday that the Government shows it is listening to their needs in the face of severe skills shortages. The business community view is that going for growth calls for a “pragmatic approach to immigration.”

Tim Richards, is a professional support lawyer in the immigration team at Kingsley Napley