Alex Russell looks at some recent changes to the immigration rules

In an attempt to meet its commitment of reducing net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, the coalition government has undertaken regular reviews of immigration categories, eligibility criteria and routes to permanent settlement. During the past two years this has resulted, among other things, in the closure of the Tier 1 (General) and Tier 1 (Post study work) categories to new applicants, an introduction of an annual cap of 20,700 on the number of Tier 2 (General) visas, the breaking of the link between work related visas and settlement, and reductions in the number of jobs on the shortage occupation list.

With net migration falling from 247,000 in the year to June 2011 to 163,000 in the year to June 2012, the government has made clear that it considers its strategy is beginning to work. Many employers, however, have found it increasingly difficult to recruit the talent they need in the timeframe required. The new Tier 1 (Exceptional talent) category - introduced in April 2012 – potentially applies to only a very small number of roles, and the relaxation of the eligibility criteria and conditions for the Tier 1 (Investor) and Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) categories is of limited relevance for most employers.

Following lobbying by employers, on 13 December 2012 and 6 April 2013 the government implemented a number of changes to the immigration rules with the aim of providing increased flexibility for employers, particularly in relation to the recruitment and retention of highly skilled and senior staff. The key changes are as follows.

  • The maximum leave to remain for senior employees on Tier 2 (Intracompany transfer) visas – the category that enables employees to be transferred from an overseas organisation to a UK entity linked by common ownership – has increased from five years to nine years. This will provide increased stability for multi-national organisations when making senior appointments, although time spent in the UK will not count towards settlement.
  • Tier 2 (General) sponsors are no longer required to appoint a suitable resident worker when carrying out the resident labour market test for PhD occupations, provided the migrant applicant is better qualified for the post. This change has widened the talent pool for some highly skilled roles.
  • The rules relating to the 12 month “cooling off” period, during which migrants are required to leave the UK following the expiry of a Tier 2 visa, have been made more flexible so that the period can start from the date the applicant can demonstrate they left the UK, rather than the expiry date of their leave to remain. Further, the “cooling off” period no longer applies to Tier 2 migrants in roles with a salary of £152,100 or more.
  • Migrants are now able to be absent from the UK for up to 180 days in any 12 month period, provided the absence is consistent with the migrant’s visa, or for other serious or compelling reasons.
  • New standard occupational classification codes have been issued which contain less prescriptive requirements for the resident labour market test, including reducing the number of roles that must be advertised in Job Centre Plus.  

While these changes will be broadly welcomed by employers, their impact is likely to be relatively modest. At a time when the UK economy is struggling for growth and some other western economies are perceived as having more flexible immigration routes, many employers will be hoping that further changes are on the horizon in what is an increasingly complex and fast moving area of compliance.