Is the UK's confused visa system in need of reform?

A ragbag approach to skills shortages and hard-to-shift government bias over the intentions of migrants is preventing employers making the most of potential talent, finds Peter Crush.

It all feels so familiar. As another mass migration crisis emanates from Ukraine, another on-the-fly visa response comes from government. Employers can sponsor fleeing Ukrainians for three years, while Ukrainians already in the UK can apply to have their current status changed.

But in both cases strict immigration rules still apply (such as level of income and proof of being able to speak English). According to some it is yet another sticking-plaster response to a short-term shock rather than representing a comprehensive approach to a longstanding debate over immigration.

Talent visas in the UK - a timeline:

January 2021: Britain leaves the EU and introduces points based immigration

October 2021: New visas announced to address labour shortages

December 2021: Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme extended to 2024

March 2022: Government introduces scheme to help Ukrainian refugees live and work in the UK

April - August 2022: New worker visas to be introduced throughout 2022

“These latest measures illustrate the split between international and national desires and what the current visa system is capable of delivering,” argues Chris Harber, head of immigration at Boyes Turner.

Harber is currently helping clients, mainly tech businesses, support Ukrainian employees by sponsoring them to come to the UK. But undermining these efforts, he believes, are government fears: “Not to make it too attractive to stay in the UK,” he says. “As this latest situation highlights, there’s no comprehensive policy and cohesive approach to legal migration.” 

According to Yash Dubal, director at AY & J Solicitors, which deals exclusively in visa and immigration advice, there is a more worrying reason behind this. “On the face of things, change does appear to take place whenever there is a crisis of some sort – such as tweaking temporary visas to tackle last year’s driver shortages, or relaxing conditions in the care sector,” he says.

“But to me things run deeper than administrative failings. Policy change never seems to be executed quickly. My sense is always that there is fear from government that migrants are not genuine.

“This mindset is deep and prevails and explains why so much onus is placed on companies to prove they can’t find people they need in the UK.”

He adds: “The government needs a much more welcoming and relaxed approach to genuine migration.”

Always caught in the middle are employers who willingly want to help – to alleviate skills shortages of their own – but say they face huge barriers.

Vicky Fordham-Lewis, managing director of property management business Osborne Property Services, says her company has been actively looking to help people from Ukraine, but she says: “There seems to be a lack of a joined-up approach. Rights to work rules are a real issue – even though we have trades roles we think would be suitable.”

A suite of new visa and immigration changes are coming in April – including three new points routes. Jonathan Beech, managing director at Migrate UK says he’s currently wading through all 202 pages of the literature, but he also shares concerns that the burden of proof for employers always seems to increase.

He says: “Some recent changes have been good. In December 2020, skills levels were opened up, earnings thresholds were relaxed and residency threshold tests were done away with, allowing employers to sponsor people they hadn’t been able to in the past – such a chefs.

“The government needs a much more welcoming and relaxed approach to genuine migration.”

“But what we’re finding is that as time goes by, the Home Office seems to ask for ever more data – some of it barely relevant, such as about applicants’ grandmothers. Security always seems to be the issue. Then there’s applications for settlement taking 6-12 months to decide – which makes it hard for employers to deal with the system.”

Data sharing is a persistent issue adds Beech: “We’re supposedly a year into a government transformation programme, where data is due to be shared better between departments, but even though we expected to see greater ease for employers to sponsor workers from April, I haven’t seen much evidence of this.

“We hoped there would be a better way for companies who have a genuine need to hire people with specialised skills, but the onus still seems to be on companies to prove they’ve tried to advertising within the UK first, even what their accounts show, and what the leases are on their buildings. It’s too much.”

According to Angela Barnes, business immigration specialist at Napthens, the government has been clear it will not introduce a general low-skilled route to the existing system to fix the UK’s labour shortages.

The last-minute announcements of temporary visa schemes to plug skills gaps – such as HGV drivers and poultry workers – instead run the risk of precarity she says: “The difficulty with this approach is that it offers no guarantees or certainty for future recruitment; UK businesses do not know if or when they might be able to rely on this route and it does not help to create a stable workforce.

“If the government intends to support businesses with the ongoing recruitment crisis, it will need to critically assess whether or not the current system is indeed fit for purpose or, as many would propose, whether a less bureaucratic, simpler, cheaper alternative must be found.”

Frustration with the visa system, is audible in the voice of Emma Sinclair, CEO of Enterprise Alumni. She’s personally created a consortium of 100-plus companies from Lush to Tesco, M&S and Nestlé in response to the Ukrainian crisis

Speaking exclusively to HR magazine she says: “There is a huge appetite to help from employers. We know that getting work for people is vital to people’s wellbeing, and our goal is to identify 10,000 roles – which we hope is a sufficient number to get the government motivated to do something about it.”

But while she’s got pledges of support, Sinclair has found that the visa process is the difficult bit: “I’m right now looking to create a blueprint because right now there is no clarity. Are visas being waived, or flexed? This is something employers just don’t know. I hope it will solve the current sticking plaster approach.

“The entrepreneur in me says that every time a crisis like this happens, visa requirement rules should be easier the next time, but they’re not.” 

Until changes to the immigration rules announced on 15 March bed in (from 6 April onwards), some employers are just getting on with what they can. Online fashion retailer Asos is one employer looking at what jobs they can offer to Ukrainian refugees, particularly in Poland where most of its workforce is already Ukrainian.

Asos people experience director Tara Benton says: “We already have a licence to offer Certificates of Sponsorship – effectively sponsoring the visa – so engaging with any government approved schemes shouldn’t be an issue for us.”

Will the Ukrainian refugee crisis on top of HGV and care worker shortages, and incoming Syria and Afghanistan refugees nudge the UK government into a more holistic approach to migration and issuing work visas though? 

For Harber, it is a question of time. “This latest Ukrainian sponsor system is actually abnormal, in that it’s the most generous I can recall the government offering,” he says.

Dubal adds: “We see skills shortage lists get updated, but what doesn’t change is the speed with which certificates are actually issued. It still feels like these are withheld.”

Beech however is more hopeful. He says: “Rules for Ukrainians do now jar with those for others populations of people, so there might be some tidying up needed. And while it’s bad that it takes a tragedy to move things forward, I think things could.”


This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.