A Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules was presented to Parliament yesterday. Those that are most relevant to business immigration are summarised below.

Electronic Entry Clearance

This change gives some hope that the end-to-end UK visa process, including submission of passports and supporting documents, will be fully digitised in the near future. This would mean applicants would no longer suffer the inconvenience of having to be without their passport for days, weeks or sometimes months. Submission of original passports with Entry Clearance applications has long been a big frustration for individuals who have busy travel schedules and cannot afford to be without their passport for the (often lengthy) period of time it takes to process their application.

UK Visas and Immigration has been working on an initiative to streamline and digitise immigration processes for the past few years. In line with this, it has been proposed that the format in which Entry Clearance (i.e. an entry visa) is issued be changed to allow for it to be issued electronically. On entry to the UK, the Entry Clearance holder will simply present their passport to the Immigration Officer, who will check their immigration status electronically. The individual will then collect their Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) as ongoing evidence of their immigration status, as per current requirements.

One thing for employers to be aware of is that, once this has been fully rolled out, it will likely no longer be possible to conduct a right to work check prior to the employee being in possession of their BRP.

Electronic Entry Clearance will be trialled with specified groups prior to general rollout. There is no indication of dates or timing at present.

Tier 2 (General)

Some minor, but important, changes are being made to the Tier 2 (General) category. This category is used by employers to sponsor skilled professionals to work in the UK, where there are no resident workers suitable to fill a given vacancy.

The main change to be aware of is that it will be possible for graduates from UK universities who hold a Tier 4 (General) visa (i.e. a student visa) to apply for a Tier 2 (General) visa once they have completed their course, rather than having to wait for their final results. This will be of particular benefit to Master's degree students, who can often wait several months for their thesis to be marked.

Other changes include:

  • a new exemption from the Resident Labour Market Test for Researchers; and
  • restrictions relating to how far a Tier 2 (General) migrant's start date can be pushed back being incorporated into the Rules (they are currently only stated in the Sponsor Guidance).

Indefinite Leave to Remain

Where an individual has completed five years' residence in the UK on a qualifying work visa they (and any accompanying family members) are eligible to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), provided the main applicant can show that they have been continually resident in the UK, i.e. have had no more than 180 days' absence from the UK in any 12-month period.

The restriction on the number of days that an applicant for ILR can be absent from the UK is being extended from the main applicant to also include the main applicant's partner (to include husband or wife, civil partner or unmarried partner in possession of a Tier 1 (Partner) or Tier 2 (Partner) visa). This change will not be retrospective – the 180-day limit will only apply to partners issued with periods of leave (i.e. a new visa or extension) from 11 January 2018.

This will mean that the possibility of a Tier 1 migrant whose travel schedule makes it difficult to comply with the continuous residence requirement will no longer be able to rely on putting forward their partner as the main applicant in order to qualify themselves for ILR without having to meet the requirement.

In addition to the above there will be some minor clarifications to the rules relating to:

  • How the end date of the qualifying period for settlement is ascertained.
  • How the maximum 180 days a year of permitted absence from the UK are calculated.
  • How time lawfully spent in the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands in equivalent immigration routes can be counted towards time spent in the UK for the purpose of a settlement application.

Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent)

This route is used by individuals with exceptional talent in science, humanities, engineering, the arts and digital technology, who are typically looking to gain international experience and/or establish a business in the UK. Each of these five fields has a Designated Competent Body (DCB), which assesses the credentials of the individual and provides endorsement to successful applicants.

As announced in the Autumn Budget, there will be two major changes:

  • The quota for this category will be doubled from 1,000 places a year to 2,000 a year. The first 1,000 places will be allocated between the five DCBs with the remaining 1,000 places being pooled for any DCB to dip into should they exhaust their initial quota.
  • An accelerated route to ILR will be offered to "world leaders in their fields", reducing the qualifying period from five years to three years.

Action to take

If you are an employer managing a UK immigration programme we recommend that you take steps to:

  • Update any graduate recruitment processes to reflect that graduates will be able to apply to switch their status from Tier 4 to Tier 2 once they have completed their studies (rather than the current requirement to have completed and passed).
  • Ensure that colleagues responsible for right to work checks are aware that Entry Clearance will be issued electronically in future and, notwithstanding this, employees must present documents to confirm their right to work in the UK, i.e. the employee will need to be in possession of their BRP in order to be able to commence employment.
  • You may have some employees who will be concerned about their partners (husband or wife, civil partner or unmarried partner) not qualifying for ILR given high absences from the UK. Be ready to reassure them that this change is not retrospective. Likewise, be ready to inform employees applying for visas from 11 January 2018 that their partners will also be subject to the 180 days a year restriction on absences.