Immigration measures in the 2021 Budget

Among the key points highlighted by the Treasury from today’s Budget is “reforms to the immigration system [to] help ambitious UK businesses attract the brightest and best international talent”. As a policy prescription, this is up there with motherhood and apple pie; even the most ardent restrictionists are in favour of letting in “the brightest and best”, and even that specific phrase is wearily familiar.

Nevertheless, with the grumbling out of our system, we can turn to the Budget’s supporting documents to check what the government means by “reforms”. There is indeed some detail:

High-skilled migration – The government is modernizing the immigration system to help the UK attract and retain the most highly skilled, globally mobile talent – particularly in academia, science, research and technology – from around the world. This will drive innovation, and support UK jobs and growth. To do this, the government will:

  • introduce, by March 2022, an elite points-based visa. Within this visa there will be a ‘scale up’ stream, enabling those with a job offer from a recognized UK scale-up to qualify for a fast-track visa 
  • reform the Global Talent visa, including to allow holders of international prizes and winners of scholarships and programmes for early promise to automatically qualify
  • review the Innovator visa to make it easier for those with the skills and experience to found an innovative business to obtain a visa
  • launch the new Global Business Mobility visa by spring 2022 for overseas businesses to establish a presence or transfer staff to the UK
  • provide practical support to small firms that are using the visa system for the first time
  • modernize the immigration sponsorship system to make it easier to use. The government will publish a delivery roadmap in the summer
  • establish a global outreach strategy by expanding the Global Entrepreneur Programme, marketing the UK’s visa offering and explore building an overseas talent network

What does it all mean in practice? Special treatment for fast-growing “scale-up” companies — the evolved form of a “start-up” — was trailed ahead of the Budget and seems to be aimed at financial technology companies specifically.

The reference to the broader “elite points-based visa” sounds like a reference to the proposed revival of an unsponsored work route, similar to the old Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, that was mooted but kicked into the long grass last year. Then again, the requirement for a job offer is an odd fit for an “unsponsored” route, so we’ll have to see how this shakes out. Perhaps we’ll end up with a halfway house, where the scale-up visa application will require proof of a job offer, but the employer won’t need a full-on sponsor licence.

Reviewing the Innovator route is welcome as it has so far been a disaster. Sorting out a visa that overseas entrepreneurs don’t laugh at in disbelief is probably a necessary condition for successfully “marketing the UK’s visa offering” as mentioned in the final bullet point. Likewise, expanding eligibility for Global Talent is a positive step, although it’s only a year since the last “reform” of this route.

Finally, the “new Global Business Mobility visa” sounds like a rebranding of the representative of an overseas business route.

None of this will happen today or tomorrow; we can expect the changes to be implemented via statements of changes to the Immigration Rules in the usual way.

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