Home Secretary Theresa May has this month announced sweeping reform to the United Kingdom's visa system, endeavouring to attract greater foreign investment through 'Corporate Immigration'. We understand that the reforms follow consultation with over 100 organisations including business groups, tourism bodies and representatives from the science and technology sectors. 

The new rules will be laid in Parliament on 26 February 2015 before coming into effect in Northern Ireland from April. 

A courageous overhaul?

The Home Office will be simplifying the immigration system for business travellers by reducing the types of visas required for this category of visitor to the UK from fifteen to four. 

The four new visa routes will be visitor (standard); visitor (to hold marriage or civil partnership); visitor (transiting the UK) and visitor (undertaking permitted paid engagements). It is this last visa route, visitor (undertaking permitted paid engagements), which is significant for business in Northern Ireland. 

Business visitors will also be permitted to take a holiday in the UK in conjunction with their work visit, where previously two visas were required - one for business and one for holiday. 

In short, policy and entry requirements are not being changed – but the rules and guidance are being simplified so people do not unwittingly fall foul of the immigration visitor rules.

While more flexibility is being introduced to the system, it is clear that enforcement against those who abuse the systems will be tough. From April, exit checks will be implemented to determine those migrants who have, and those who have not, complied with the length of their visa.

Ripple effects

Government ministers have suggested that the reforms will create a more 'streamlined application process' and reduce the risk of visitors getting bogged down in bureaucracy. The Home Secretary's changes should lessen the administrative burden for business visitors and reduce processing times. This, if true in practice, is welcome news as business leaders and employers alike have, for some time, raised concerns that the existing visa process is cumbersome and stalling their efforts considerably to expand the economy. A revised process should allow for the freer movement of skilled workers, which will in turn have some unforeseen impacts – such as increased wages/salaries, increased competition for talent and increased indigenous unemployment.

Positive in theory – now for practice

Compliance with the myriad of immigration laws can be a challenge and there are important issues which employers and HR professionals should be aware of in order to avoid financial or criminal sanction being imposed by the UK Border Agency.

The penalty for employing an overseas national who does not have the right to work in Northern Ireland presently stands at £20,000 per illegal worker. Moreover, an employer will face a civil penalty for 'negligent recruitment practice' and criminal prosecution for 'knowingly employing illegal immigrants'.

There is no doubt that these changes should be well received. However, it remains to be seen how the reforms will deliver in removing some of the 'red tape' on businesses and employers.

Good news for Northern Ireland 

The publication of the NI Corporation Tax Bill in January 2015 has already laid the foundations for a milestone event in Northern Ireland’s economic life. This breakthrough, accompanied by the overhaul of the UK's visa system detailed above, should breathe new life into our business community as 'NI plc' attracts further foreign direct investment.

For further information please contact a member of our Employment team (NI).