New immigration system – key points for the life sciences and technology sectors

The Government has published further details about the new immigration system that is due to be implemented from 1 January 2021. The Further Details statement builds on the policy statement that was issued in February 2020.  European freedom of movement will end on 31 December 2020 and the new system will apply to all European and non-European applicants.

Key points for the life sciences and technology sectors include.

  • Skilled Worker visa – the Tier 2 (General) category will be renamed the Skilled Worker route.  Applicants will need a job offer skilled at A-level or equivalent from a licenced sponsor and will require a minimum of 70 points to qualify for permission to work in the UK.  Some points characteristics are mandatory (eg, job offer at an appropriate skill level and English language skills), with others being ‘tradeable’ (eg, salary level, filling a shortage occupation role, and education qualifications).  Notably, applicants will be able to claim PhD tradeable points for certain listed occupations which include those where having PhD-level STEM knowledge is deemed advantageous.  This is likely to make it more straightforward to recruit people into many life sciences and technology roles, including junior but highly skilled research and developer roles where starting salaries are relatively low.   
  • Streamlined compliance – in a welcome development, the resident labour market test will be abolished and there will be no cap on the number of visas that can be issued each year.  This will help to reduce recruitment lead-in times by up to around a month and will effectively enable businesses to recruit from the global talent pool with minimal restrictions.  The shortage occupation list will remain but will be subject to regular review.  
  • Switching – in a significant development, there will be more flexibility for in-country switching between visa categories for applicants who meet the criteria for the relevant category.  This will be welcomed by businesses as it will reduce costs and disruption and in many cases enable employees to continue working for the employer (rather than have to leave the UK) pending a fresh application being determined.  It will continue to be the case that visitors will not be able to switch into other categories when in the UK.
  • Intra group mobility – the Tier 2 (Intra Company Transfer) category will remain largely unchanged, enabling international businesses to transfer existing skilled employees from overseas to the UK for limited periods.  The existing minimum salary threshold of £41,500 or the SOC Code rate, (whichever is higher) will apply, roles will need to be at RQF Level 6 (ie, degree level), and it appears that applicants will in most cases need to have worked for 12 months with an overseas linked entity in the period prior to applying.  It will remain the case that this category will not lead to settlement in the UK.
  • Global Talent Visa – this non-sponsored category, introduced in February this year, will remain in place into 2021.  It is likely to prove to be very useful for the life sciences and technology sectors, providing considerable flexibility for applicants (eg, the ability to set up a spin out company, and a fast track to settlement), and employers (eg, not having to meet sponsor compliance obligations).  One of the options for endorsement is under the UK Research and Innovation funder route with relevant endorsing bodies being The Royal Society (for science and medicine) and The Royal Academy of Engineering (for engineering).  Individuals who have accepted senior research positions (such as Senior Group Leader) at an approved research institute will also potentially qualify for automatic endorsement.      
  • International students – a new non-sponsored graduate route will allow international students to remain in the UK after completion of their studies to work for a two year period (or three years for PhD students).  This appears to be an attempt to maintain the attractiveness of the UK as a destiny for international students in a competitive international higher education market.  This will provide much greater flexibility for businesses to recruit and employ promising graduates for up to three years before having to sponsor them for a Skilled Worker visa.
  • Highly Skilled Worker route– details about this non-sponsored category have not yet been published and there will be a further period of consultation in 2021.  Based on what the Government has said to date, it appears this is unlikely to be as broad as the previous Tier 1 (General) category and is unlikely to provide a viable option for most roles in the sector. 

COVID-19 has understandably taken up significant bandwidth for many organisations.  It is crucial, however, that life sciences and technology businesses take steps in good time to prepare for the new system.  Key actions will include:

  • Sponsor licences - employers who are not currently Tier 2 sponsors and who are likely to need to recruit European or other foreign nationals from 1 January 2021 should consider applying for a sponsor licence now.  There is likely to be a significant increase in applications in the second half of this year, which may result in significant delays.   
  • Sponsor licence structures – although Tier 2 (General) licences will automatically be converted to Skilled Worker licences, employers who are already Tier 2 sponsors should consider whether their current licence reflects future requirements.  For example, do further sites or locations need to be added to the licence, or subsidiary companies linked as branches or added to a Tier 2 (Intra Company Transfer) licence? 
  • EU nationals - the new system will not apply to EU nationals already living in the UK by 31 December 2020 (they will be eligible to apply for pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme).  EU nationals who wish to start work in the UK in early 2021 may wish to relocate before 31 December 2020, even if they do not start work until early 2021.  Employers will also want to build these considerations into recruitment timelines over the next few months .

The Mills & Reeve immigration team can advise on all sponsor licence and visa issues and can help you get in good shape for the changes ahead.  This includes the option for us to become your legal representative and Level 1 user on the sponsor management system.  Please contact Alex Russell if you would like to discuss how we can support you.  

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