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Home Office strategy statement on legal migration and border control – what’s in it?

03 June 2021

As part of the government’s ‘new plan for immigration’ the Home Office released a strategy statement on 24 May 2021 setting out its plans for legal migration and border control. It provides an overview of what is an ambitious programme of change, spanning both operational and policy transformation.

The statement outlines some elements of the Home Office’s planned multi-year programme for modernising, simplifying and developing visa routes within the UK immigration system following the end of free movement, as well as achieving greater border security. It covers immediate priorities for 2021/2022 as well as planned changes up to 2025. While many of the policies and initiatives mentioned are not new, the statement does provide some useful information on timelines for implementation.

Priorities in 2021/2022

These include:

  • Continuing to operate the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) both before and after the main in-country application deadline on 30 June 2021
  • Introducing the Graduate route from 1 July 2021
  • Replacing T2 Sportsperson and elements of the T5 Creative and Sporting routes with an International Sportsperson route
  • Continuing to simplify the drafting of Immigration Rules
  • Simplifying questions on application forms and text in decision notices
  • Providing expanded options for demonstrating the requirements of a route are met, including a broader range of acceptable evidence and the ability to upload evidence from home
  • Making improvements to sponsorship processes (which will be further detailed in a roadmap due to be published in summer 2021) such as:
  • Using ID verification apps (ChipChecker service) for applicants rather than requiring them to attend a physical location to enrol their biometric information (facial image)
  • Generating an automatic invitation for visa applicants to make their application, including confirming pre-populated information that has already been entered by their sponsor
  • Making sponsor licence processes more streamlined and robust by introducing automated checks with HMRC, Companies House and other government bodies to fast-track the approval of some sponsors and users, and to pick up non-compliance with requirements such as salary payment levels
  • Introducing a dashboard for sponsors to allow them to manage their sponsored workers and see information about their visa applications
  • Giving sponsors a ‘trust rating’ which will determine their sponsor duties and reporting duties
  • Establishing a service to support small and micro business sponsors
  • Reviewing fees for users of the sponsorship system
  • Introducing a ‘Skilled Worker Eligibility checking tool’ to make it easier to identify if a job is eligible for sponsorship
  • Launching new and reformed immigration routes including:
  • A new unsponsored points-based route focusing on the very highly skilled and academically elite, and including a ‘scale-up’ stream for those coming to the UK to work for a recognised scale-up business
  • A new Global Business Mobility route by spring 2022, which will include provisions for intra-company transferees; service suppliers and independent professionals under trade agreements the UK is a party to; individuals or teams of representatives of overseas businesses setting up a branch or subsidiary in the UK (possibly under a sponsored visa, and possibly with numbers related to the size of the investment in the UK); secondees of overseas businesses that have awarded a contract to a UK business to supply the overseas business with goods
  • A new Graduate route from 1 July 2021, which cost £700, will be applied for using the ChipChecker service and will result in a digital status only for non-visa nationals – for further details see our previous article
  • A single International Sportsperson route (digital for EEA/Swiss nationals) to replace the current Tier 2 and 5 routes, retaining the Sports Governing Body endorsement but tailoring requirements and offering shorter-term and longer-term stays
  • Enabling EEA/Swiss nationals to access temporary worker routes (including creative, religious and Government Authorised Exchange workers) using a fully digital application process from September 2021
  • Enabling the ChipChecker service to be used for in-country Skilled Worker applications
  • Simplifying the family, private life and settlement routes to streamline the application process and introduce more consistent evidence requirements
  • Making improvements to the online immigration status service so that individuals covered by it can access and prove their immigration status more easily and in a more supported way
  • Increasing the use of system-to-system checks to allow other government departments and public bodies to check immigration status directly with the Home Office
  • Ending the use of EEA ID cards from 1 October 2021 (with limited exceptions)
  • Implementing new ‘Border Crossing’, or ‘BX’ technology by summer 2021 to enable Border Force officers to have faster access to information at the border including checking EUSS application or grant status and international person of interest data, as well as making this information available via e-gate upgrades during 2021
  • Starting work on the planned Electronic Travel Authorisation system that will require all entrants to the UK other than British and Irish nationals to obtain electronic pre-clearance prior to travel
  • Seeking to remove physical documents as evidence of immigration status, eg possibly replacing entry clearance vignettes and biometric residence permits with digital status records – this will involve the Home Office enabling transport carriers to access immigration status information prior to allowing passengers to board their services, with initial testing due to start from autumn 2021 for Electronic Visa Waiver holders

Planned changes to 2025

The Home Office’s vision for its programme of change up until 2025 relies heavily on use of technology to process people at the border, to make and assess applications, to prove immigration status and to operate the sponsorship system. Ultimately the Home Office hopes to improve both ease of use and public confidence in the system through delivering a streamlined, modernised, more secure digital service. It is currently seeking input from academics, technology vendors and carriers to do this.

The Electronic Travel Authority system is due to be made available by the end of 2024, and the Home Office is investigating the possibility of using contactless passage through border controls. This is intended to speed up both the process of boarding carrier services and moving through border controls on arrival.

There are also plans to make most identity checks digitally, and for applicants to present themselves once at a visa application centre to enrol their fingerprints where they are required to do so (some applicants who are eligible to use the ChipChecker app will not have to provide fingerprints at all).

Evidence of immigration status is expected to become entirely digital by the end of 2024. The Home Office will follow a phased process to achieve this transition. This will also be extended out to make electronic immigration status services available to those who have been in the UK for many years and who currently only have paper documents to prove their status.

The system will prioritise self-service for applicants, with online tools and guidance being emphasised, but alongside a national Assisted Digital service for those who find using technology difficult. Customer contact will become more digital, through the use of digital customer accounts and communication channels.

Observations on policy changes

In terms of policy advances, the intended expansion of immigration options will be modest, and will continue to focus on those with the greatest potential to bring economic benefit to the UK.

New unsponsored points-based route

The new unsponsored points-based route must necessarily be distinguishable from the Global Talent route, however it will still be intentionally narrow with a view to avoiding the likelihood that participants will end up filling low-skilled roles in the UK economy. The scale-up stream could end up being a form of quasi-sponsorship and it remains to be seen how and why this route may be attractive to scale-ups in comparison to Skilled Worker.

Global Business Mobility route

The Global Business Mobility route covers too many purposes for it to be a truly simplified offering. More likely it will be an umbrella route with various distinct strands. If it includes a points-test, it is likely to be one under which the eligibility criteria are simply assigned a points to make up a fixed overall points threshold rather a true points-test where meeting various combinations of points-scoring criteria will lead to approval.

Family, private life and settlement routes

It is unfortunate that the Home Office has not yet confirmed any intention to review family, private life and settlement route policy in terms of eligibility criteria, so far ignoring the Migration Advisory Committee’s suggestion in its 2020 annual report to review the evidence base for the family reunification minimum income requirement. Instead, it promises only to simplify the routes as part of the ongoing Immigration Rule simplification project.

Youth Mobility Scheme

It is interesting to note that expansion of the Youth Mobility Scheme arrangements to include EEA countries/Switzerland appears to have dropped off the policy agenda. For the time-being, this leaves very limited options for geographically proximate young people who might like to come to the UK as au pairs, seasonal workers, or flexible workers in the retail and hospitality sectors. If not addressed, this increases the risk of non-compliance with visitor immigration conditions, at least from the point at which the travel and social interaction complications of the pandemic become less of a problem.

Observations on operational changes

Using digital technologies for application processing and immigration status verification

The emphasis on harnessing new technology is both exciting and concerning, as it could revolutionise ease for users of the system on the one hand, but could also pose significant practical difficulties if not successfully achieved.

The technology that has been developed to run the EUSS and to deal with processing and public health issues presented by the pandemic provides a good starting point, however they still have quirks that require work-arounds. The Home Office also needs to address a fundamental issue in the digital status system, which does not currently deal well with issues like change of nationality or the issuing of new identity documents. It is currently possible to have more than one active digital immigration status record, which is something that needs to be urgently addressed to avoid confusion and potential inadvertent breach of immigration conditions or overstaying.

Users of the system also need to be provided clear information to help them to evidence their UK immigration status over time, particularly if they wish to settle and naturalise in the UK in due course, or if they are people who are not comfortable with using digital technology.

Use of electronic systems for pre-arrival clearance and border checks

Although this is not emphasised in the statement, the UK is considerably behind other countries in areas such as electronic travel authorisation and availability of departmental records at border controls. It is worrisome that Border Force is not already able to verify whether a person has applied for or been granted status under the EUSS. With the main scheme deadline approaching on 30 June 2021, the ability to do so must be prioritised to minimise the risk that individuals are not unlawfully denied entry to the UK. 

Sponsorship arrangements

The plan to modernise and streamline the operation of the sponsorship system is very welcome as the technology currently being used is in need of replacement, and current arrangements are costly and time-consuming to comply with. Sponsors should familiarise themselves with the sponsorship system roadmap once released and should consider participating in stakeholder engagement opportunities offered by the Home Office to help shape the reformed arrangements.

Self-service model for users

The Home Office’s aspiration for a self-service model may work for some users of the system, however there will still be a need for adequate assistance to be available to those who are not comfortable with digital technology. This will likely need to go well beyond the Assisted Digital service and digital customer contact. The systems should also cater for the fact that sponsors and other users may still prefer to have the assistance of immigration advisers despite the availability of online tools and guidance aimed at making engagement with the system straight-forward.

If you have any queries or feedback about the issues raised in this article, please contact a member of our Immigration Team.


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