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Globally mobile talent: "Coming to a business hub near you" in Spring 2022 - A review of UK Innovation Strategy

Written by
Nilmini Roelens, Roelens Solicitors
Date of Publication:
17 January 2022

Detailed rules relating to three new visas and reviews to existing routes are due to be published in the coming weeks.

Back in July 2021 the UK government unveiled its ambitious Innovation strategy to lead the future by creating it [1]. It recognised that to deliver on the Global Britain vision, having left the EU, the international element was central and promised to create an immigration system "based on individual merit to bring in the best talent globally, regardless of country of origin…" It noted the increasing competition in the innovation race and announced a four pillared strategy to make the UK a global hub.

The Chancellor's Autumn 2021 budget sub-titled "Protecting the jobs and livelihoods of the British people" [2] appeared to recognise the important role immigration has in achieving that end:

"2.42 It is vital that innovative businesses have access to the talent and skills they need. High skilled migration boosts innovation, jobs and competitiveness. 49% of the UK's fastest-growing businesses have at least one foreign-born co-founder and approximately 40% of staff in UK fintechs are from overseas". [3]

"Investment in research, development and innovation can play a critical part in levelling up by boosting business productivity, resulting in higher wages for workers, and spreading investment across the UK"

The Innovation strategy thus notes in relation to skills gaps that "the UK will attract and retain global talent through its visa system, and enable business and academia to partner abroad to undertake R&D and share talent, for example through the work of the Science and Innovation Network (SIN)". [4]

Similarly, and alongside the creation of a number of new visa routes the government is creating a Network to identify and "headhunt" Global Talent.

Global Talent Network will be "launching in the Bay Area and Boston in the US, and Bengaluru in India – to find and bring talented people to the UK to work in key science and technology sectors". It is intended that the Global Talent Network "will proactively find and bring talented people to the UK in key science and technology sectors".

"This network will work with businesses and research institutions to identify UK skills needs and source talent in overseas campuses, innovation hubs and research institutions to bring to the UK. A concierge service will also be available to support people moving to the UK" [5] .

Thus, along with the lilacs out of the dead earth Spring 2022 will breed a contingent of new visas designed to attract international talent to the UK.

The Global Talent visa launched in early 2020 transpired to be a rebranding of the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa which had been first introduced in 2011.

Having witnessed limited take up a sudden upsurge of Global Talent visas was noted by Freemovement from the third quarter of 2020. [6] Although this coincided with Brexit, surprisingly, the figures excluded EU nationals.

It remains to be seen whether there will be a similarly avid uptake of the proposed new visa options by EU and non-EU nationals alike.

Whilst the Global Talent Network appears to be a non-EU "headhunt" the actual visa streams on offer will of course be applicable to all non-settled, non-British/Irish nationals who are subject to immigration control.

Three new visa routes on offer from on or about March 2022 are Scale-ups, Global Mobility Business and High Potential Individuals.

Although the details will no doubt soon be published in the form a statement of changes to the Immigration Rules this is what we know so far:

Scale-ups:

This unsponsored route, due by March 2022, is to be an elite points-based visa enabling those with a job offer from a recognised UK scale-up to qualify for a fast-track visa.

This route intends to "support UK scale-ups by allowing talented individuals with a high skilled job offer from a qualifying scale-up at the required salary level to come to the UK. Scale-ups will be able to apply through a fast-track verification process to use the route, so long as they can demonstrate an annual average revenue or employment growth rate over a three-year period greater than 20%, and a minimum of 10 employees at the start of the three-year period.

UK Government will explore whether scale-ups who can demonstrate an expectation of strong growth in future years may also qualify following a review. The route will allow eligible individuals to work, switch jobs or employers. Individuals will be able to extend their visa and settle in the UK, subject to meeting specific requirements". [7]

It follows that only established businesses would qualify and it seems likely that a system of endorsement from a separate body (similar to Innovator) or convincing the HO reviewing caseworker on business growth (when they may not necessarily be equipped to judge) will be required. What is the incentive for the employer? It is difficult to see what this route could add - apart from the fact that a sponsor licence is not required - but then most established businesses who need to recruit high flyers will most likely have a licence already and would need to pay the "going market rate" and so may prefer to use the sponsored skilled worker route which requires and enables a degree of "control". It is hoped however that some of the issues that blighted the Innovator such as the high level growth to international markets etc. at extension stage route will be avoided.

Global Business Mobility:

This will be an unsponsored route leading to settlement. It will consolidate a number of existing routes such as the Intra-company transfer (ICT), Representative of an Overseas Business and T5 International Agreement, reworking:

• existing provisions for intra-company transferees, subject to any recommendations made by the independent Migration Advisory Committee following the Home Secretary's commission [ICT]

• existing arrangements implementing the UK's trade commitments in respect of contractual service suppliers and independent professionals [T5 International Agreement]

• arrangements for employees of an overseas business assigned to the UK to establish a branch or subsidiary of that business. Existing rules which restrict the route to a single representative per sending business will be relaxed depending on, for example, the size of the investment in the UK. We are examining how these arrangements can be brought within the sponsorship system [Sole reps]

• new provision to accommodate import and export-related secondments to, for example, better accommodate scenarios in which an overseas business has contracted with a UK business for the supply of goods and needs to second workers to the supplier for the purposes of product development or familiarisation [Permitted Activities - BV]

Any sectors wishing to be heard in relation to pressures and strains from labour shortages would do well to make representations to the MAC before this route is fully defined.

High Potential Individual:

The Graduate visa launched back in July 2021 which enables a recent graduate from a UK institution to remain for a period of 2 to 3 years in the UK in the form of a passerelle to a Skilled work visa and as a resurrection of the Post Study Work visa.

The High Potential Individual visa now due in Spring 2022 (alongside a review of the Innovator route) promises "to make it as simple as possible for internationally mobile individuals who demonstrate high potential to come to the UK."

Eligibility will be open to applicants who have graduated from a top global university. The UK government will explore the scope to expand eligibility to other characteristics of high potential. There will be no job offer requirement, giving individuals the flexibility to work, switch jobs or employers and make contributions to the UK economy. The route will also allow eligible individuals to extend their visa and settle in the UK, subject to meeting specific requirements" [8].

There are echoes of the beleaguered Tier 1 General/HSMP here. The exclusivity inherent in the offer to graduates of a "top global university" may limit the numbers of take up.

A revitalised Innovator route:

A much-needed review of this route is intended to "allow talented innovators and entrepreneurs from overseas to start and operate a business in the UK that is venture-backed or harnesses innovative technologies, creating jobs for UK workers and boosting growth".

The plan involves:

"• Simplifying and streamlining the business eligibility criteria. Applicants will need to demonstrate that their business venture has a high potential to grow and add value to the UK and is innovative.

• Fast-tracking applications. The UK government is exploring a fast-track, lighter touch endorsement process for applicants whose business ideas are particularly advanced to match the best-in-class international offers. Applicants that have been accepted on to the Department for International Trade's Global Entrepreneur Programme will be automatically eligible.

• Building flexibility. Applicants will no longer be required to have at least £50,000 in investment funds to apply for an Innovator visa, provided that the endorsing body is satisfied the applicant has sufficient funds to grow their business. We will also remove the restriction on doing work outside of the applicant's primary business".

Whilst this is welcome it is hoped that the simplification and streamlining will address issues surrounding the review and endorsement process and "the difficult to meet" thresholds on extension.

Global Entrepreneur Programme:

"The government will also maintain the expanded Department for International Trade (DIT) Global Entrepreneur Programme. This will allow the programme to continue to expand its global footprint to bring an extra 100 innovative, highly skilled entrepreneurs to the UK each year." [9]

The visa reforms will sit alongside the Global Entrepreneur Programme (GEP) "which has a track record of success in attracting high skilled migrant tech founders with IP-rich businesses to the UK. The programme will focus on attracting more international talent to support the growth of technology clusters including through working with academic institutions from overseas to access innovative spinouts and overseas talent" [10].

Relying on the exclusive and the exceptional to drive growth and innovation may prove to have a limited impact on the economy.

Sponsorship Roadmap [11]:

Sponsorship through the Skilled worker route with a job offer from a licensed sponsor is likely to remain, by far, the most commonly used work route to the UK. [The new routes all appear to be aimed at "the exceptional few"] At the time of the publication of the roadmap at the end of August 2021, UKVI had received 205,919 work visa applications, up 40% on the previous year.

To meet the stated aims of becoming a global hub for growth, however, it would be important for the government to invest adequate staff resources to deal with the demand of this main category for global mobility.

The UK's acute need for skilled workers should engender a review of some of its eligibility requirements. This should include lowering the requirement of English language which is currently at B1, in order to make it more fit for purpose. This is particularly important considering the exodus of EU skilled workers with "unique or specialist" skills from the UK [i.e. skills which may not quite meet the Level 3 threshold] and those who are unable to meet the high level of B1 English, notably where it is not required for the job. Perhaps a variable exchange of points could be offered for English language within the spirit of the Points Based System. The individuals would have five years, in any event, to hone up their language skills to meet the threshold for settlement purposes.

Currently, the UKVI Sponsor Casework Operations team appears to be struggling to meet the 8-week service standard for approving a sponsor licence. Many immigration lawyers have run out of match sticks propping up eyelids at odd hours of the night seeking to be among the 10 applicants for sponsor licences competing for "priority consideration". The delays are stifling for businesses. It is the SMEs that drive an economy forward.

The promises to modernise the sponsorship system's digital access is most welcome as it now appears somewhat "clunky" since it was first introduced in 2008. Adequate allocation of staff resources into this most common form of skilled migration would make sense in tackling "needs" from the point of view of employers struggling to recruit in a harsh business environment, prospective skilled employees and, the country in general.

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/sponsorship-roadmap-to-make-it-easier-to-attract-global-talent