Philip Barth
Posted on 4 Mar 2021

Treasury Budget 2021: Immigration Measures

In the wake of Brexit, it is certainly promising to learn that UK immigration has made the cut for this year's Treasury Budget. Included in the key points highlighted by the Treasury is a pledge to "modernise the immigration system" as it aims to "drive innovation and support UK jobs and growth" and "help ambitious UK businesses attract the brightest and best international talent".

But what does this mean in practice? We take a look at the Government's proposals in the 2021 Budget and how these may impact UK businesses.

The Government's proposals in respect of high-skilled migration, outlined at paragraph 2.140 of the Budget, are as follows:

  • By March 2022 - introduce an elite points-based visa. There will be a 'scale-up' stream option, which will allow employees with a job offer from a recognised UK 'scale-up' to qualify for a fast-track visa.
  • Reform the Global Talent visa route – including allowing holders of international prizes/winner of early scholarships and programmes for early promise to automatically qualify.
  • Review the Innovator visa route to make it easier for those with the relevant skills and experience to obtain a visa.
  • By Spring 2022 – launch the new Global Business Mobility route, for overseas businesses to establish a presence or transfer staff to the UK.
  • Provide practical support to small firms using the visa system for the first time.
  • Modernise the immigration Sponsor Management System to make it easier to use. A roadmap for the proposed changes is expected to be released in the summer.
  • Establish a global outreach strategy by expanding the Global Entrepreneur Programme.

What does it all mean?

There are undeniably some promising reforms but, until further details are received, there are still many grey areas for which further clarification is required.

The proposed "elite points-based visa" sounds like a reincarnation of the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. This was a points-based, unsponsored work route that was launched in 2002. It was subsequently shoehorned into the original Points Based System, which was launched in 2008, and rebranded as the Tier 1 (General) visa. It was, however, closed to new applicants in March 2011 because it did not attract the "right kind" of migrant, even though they had scored the required points to qualify. 

Within this proposed elite points-based visa will sit a 'scale-up' stream that seems to be aimed specifically at fintech firms, according to Mr Sunak's recent comments, and as recommended in the recently published Kalifa Review of UK Fintech. The planned changes are aimed to make it simpler for fintech companies to recruit highly skilled staff, without going through the cumbersome sponsorship process, which may be daunting for smaller businesses. It seems that this will be a hybrid type of visa, not needing formal sponsorship but requiring a job offer at the required skills level from a recognised UK scale up.

A review of the Innovator route will surely be music to the ears of many – given that, to date, this route has been nothing short of a disaster. The rules are convoluted and very difficult to apply, meaning the level of applications for this route are low, as is the success rate. We look forward to hearing more specific details, in due course.

From the information we have to date, it looks like the proposed launch of the Global Business Mobility visa in 2022 is set to replace the current visa for a Representative of an Overseas Business (colloquially known as the "Sole Rep" visa). The Sole Rep visa route is intended for use by overseas businesses, with no presence in the UK, to send a representative to the UK, with the intention of creating a business presence there.

The devil will be in the detail for this proposal, but this may also be a welcome change as for many obtaining a visa under the Sole Rep route has proved to be a challenging process during recent times, largely due to the introduction of more stringent requirements and powers for the Home Office to refuse applications which do not satisfy the "genuineness test".

Lastly, it is great to hear the Government recognises the Sponsor Management System is in dire need of a technological makeover – better late than never! Further details in the shape of a roadmap are promised for the summer, and so we will ensure to update you with specific details then.

We are glad to see that much needed improvements to the UK immigration system have made their way into this year's budget, and with the promise of an additional £217 million (as set out in the 2020 Spending Review), we remain hopeful that these will indeed come to fruition. However, as is generally the case with the Treasury's announcement, the measures should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt as we await further details to be released in the coming months and years.

If you have any questions about the Budget, or anything else, please do not hesitate to get in touch with Nicole Hambleton or Philip Barth.