Changes to the Business Visitor Rules
From 31 January the rules for those entering the UK as visitors for business purposes will change. Intra-company visitors will now be permitted to work directly with clients in the UK, although any client-facing activity must be incidental to the visitor’s employment abroad. Overseas visitors may also work remotely while in the UK, as long as that is not the main purpose of their visit. The permitted activities that visiting scientists, researchers, academics and legal professionals can undertake have also been expanded.
Visitors will be able to undertake certain permitted paid activities, including speaking at conferences, without needing a special Permitted Paid Engagement visa first, as long as the activity was arranged prior to their travel and takes place within 30 days of arrival in the UK.
Immigration Health Surcharge Increase
The Immigration Health Surcharge is set increase from £624 per year to £1,035 per year from 6 February. For Youth Mobility Scheme applicants, Students and applicants under 18 the charge will increase from £470 per year to £776. For all visas, the total charge for the full duration of the visa must be paid upfront.
Civil Penalty Increase for Employers and Landlords
The maximum fine that can be levied on an employer under the right to work regime will increase from £20,000 to £60,000 per illegal worker. The minimum penalty for a first offence (where the employer has not received any civil penalties in the preceding 3 years) will be set at £45,000. For landlords, the maximum civil penalty will be £20,000 per illegal occupier, or £5,000 pr illegal occupier for a first-time breach. The increase will come into force on 13 February.
Further ETA Rollout to Gulf States
The UK government is rolling out a new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) system for nationals of certain countries, similar to the USA’s ESTA programme. It is being introduced in stages, starting with Qatar in October last year. From 22 February nationals of Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will need to have an ETA if they wish to visit the UK for up to 6 months. The ETA application system will be available for them to access from 1 February. Note that the ETA scheme does not replace the need for a UK visit visa. This means that nationals of countries on the UK’s ‘visa national’ list will still need to have a valid visit visa in addition to an ETA when their country of nationality is included in the ETA programme. Existing multiple-entry visit visas should still remain valid until their expiry date, irrespective of whether the holder is also required to apply for an ETA before travelling.
Spring: Changes to Work Visas
In the spring of 2024 we will see implementation of the government’s ‘five-point plan’ to cut net migration, announced in December 2023. While no specific dates have been confirmed, we expect these changes to take effect in April. They include:
The salary threshold to sponsor an individual under the Skilled Worker route (the main employment immigration route) will rise to £38,700 from £26,200. This will not affect applications within the Health & Care visa route or those subject to a national pay scale such as NHS staff and teachers. The increased salary threshold will also not affect those who are already in the Skilled Worker route before the changes take effect.
The 20% salary discount to the going rate for jobs on the Shortage Occupation List will no longer apply. The Shortage Occupation List will be replaced by a new, shortened, Immigration Salary List.
Care workers will no longer be able to bring their dependants to the UK, although this will not apply to those already in the visa route before the changes come in. Care organisations who wish to sponsor new hires will need to be registered with the Care Quality Commission.
Changes to Family Visas
The basic minimum income required for family members of British citizens and those settled in the UK to qualify for a family visa will increase from £18,600 to £29,000. Further increases to £34,500 and then £38,700 by spring 2025 are also planned. The current additional income requirement for sponsoring dependant children will also be removed. The changes will not apply to those already in this visa category before the increase takes effect.
Throughout 2024: Transition to eVisas
The government plans to phase out physical immigration status documents including biometric residence permits, biometric residence cards, visa vignettes and immigration endorsements in passports by the end of 2024, replacing them with digital ‘eVisas’. It is expected that different cohorts of document holders will be invited to register for a UK government eVisa account at different times over the course of 2024. As yet specific dates have not been announced and we expect the government to publish further information as the year progresses.
Further Rollout of ETA
Over the course of 2024, the ETA scheme will be rolled out to other countries, meaning nationals of those countries will need to apply for an ETA before they can travel to the UK as visitors. This includes nationals of countries who currently do not need any prior permission such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the EU. The government will announce when the scheme will apply to specific countries in due course.
The Home Office is increasing sponsor licence compliance audits and many are being conducted remotely via video call. Many roles are under more scrutiny and there can be delays obtaining a defined Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS). Sponsors should be prepared to provide further supporting evidence when requesting a defined CoS. Sponsors should also be prepared for Home Office compliance visits either in person or remote.
Other Possible Changes: EU Countries Added to the Youth Mobility Scheme?
It has been widely reported that the UK government has held talks with various EU countries about introducing mutual youth mobility schemes (aka ‘working holiday’ visas), to allow young people from those countries to come to the UK to work for a temporary period, and vice versa. The UK’s current Youth Mobility Scheme allows nationals of certain countries who are aged between 18-30 (or 18-35 in some cases) to come to the UK on a 2-year visa and to work without needing employer sponsorship. As yet no official announcements have been made, but if introduced it could provide welcome relief for employers in sectors suffering staff shortages.
Changes to the Graduate Route?
The government intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to review the Graduate visa route, which it claims is open to abuse. We would not expect a report until late 2024, but it may be that changes are made following the outcome of that review.
A Change of Government?
Immigration is likely to be a hot topic in the expected General Election this year. Whatever the outcome of the election, we would expect further changes to the UK’s immigration rules and policy to be made as a result. Exactly what those will be remains to be seen.
In light of the above changes, we recommend that employers:
- Ensure their right to work checks are all in order – this is a good time to review files and procedures to ensure the business is complying fully with its obligations, and to arrange staff training if it is needed.
- Conduct an internal compliance audit if they hold a sponsor licence, to ensure they are meeting their sponsor duties.
- Review recruitment plans and budget for the increased costs of sponsoring migrant workers and consider whether any planned recruitment be brought forward before the new changes come in.
- Plan business visitor trips carefully to ensure both the UK hosting business and the overseas visitor are clear on activities they will be undertaking and that these are permitted under the immigration rules.
- Check whether business visitors need to apply for an ETA before their visit. This will depend on when the visitor’s country of nationality is rolled into the programme.
- Be aware that there may be delays at the UK border and/or issues carrying out right to work checks as the rollout to eVisas progresses.
How can we help?
The Immigration team at Charles Russell Speechlys has a wealth of knowledge and experience in helping clients navigate the ever-changing immigration landscape. We regularly advise on the sponsorship of migrant workers, licensing and compliance, short-term business visitors, and non-sponsorship solutions. Our team can also provide bespoke in-house training, guidance documents, video guides and e-learning modules to ensure your staff are fully prepared.