Immigration update – January 2024
30 January 2024
Increase to Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) fees imminent
Last year the UK Government announced its intention to increase the IHS by 66% from its current level. It has now confirmed that the increase will come into effect on 6 February 2024.
This means that the current fee of £624 per person per year of the visa applied for, will be increased to £1,035 per person per year of the visa applied for. The discounted rate for those on a Student Visa, Youth Mobility Scheme Visa, and those under the age of 18, will increase from £470 to £776 per person per year of the visa applied for.
Employers should consider if there is benefit in bringing forward or extending sponsored employees’ visa applications before the deadline. Care needs to be taken with the length of the visa applied for so that unnecessary extension fees are not incurred further down the line.
Removal of the Shortage Occupation List (SOL)
The Home Office has announced that it will remove the SOL in its current form from use in early 2024. It will be replaced with a so-called new ‘Immigration Salary List (ISL)’. The new ISL will include general threshold discounts in certain limited circumstances (i.e. health and care sector). However, it will not feature the current blanket 20% discount on minimum salaries.
The Migration Advisory Committee (also called the ‘MAC’), an independent public body that advises the United Kingdom (UK) Government on migration issues has been asked by the Home Office to review the jobs currently listed on the SOL, with a view to possibly decreasing the number of jobs it contains and the length of time jobs can remain registered on the SOL.
It is expected that the MAC will provide its review by the end of February 2024, with a view to the Government implementing any changes in their usual spring update to the UK Immigration Rules in April 2024. The MAC are not taking any new evidence to consider this matter.
This change is likely to impact employers, some significantly. Many businesses rely on the salary reduction, as well as lower application fees (and in some instances an exemption from paying the Immigration Skills Charge) to be able to fill their vacancies. It is very likely that the ISL will be of less use to employers’ operations on the lower end of the salary requirements for visa purposes than the SOL has traditionally been.
Sponsor licence renewal process
The Home Office has announced that they are scrapping the sponsor licence renewal process. Currently licences are granted as valid for four years with a sponsor licence renewal fee (£1,476 or £536 depending on business size) payable to extend beyond this. The Home Office announced on 24 January that from 6 April 2024 the licence renewal process will be scrapped, no fee will be payable, and all licences will be valid for 10 years. If licences are due to expire after 6 April 2024, they have automatically been extended by 10 years and no further action is required.
Any organisation that has already submitted a renewal request will be contacted directly by UKVI to arrange a refund of any fee paid.
Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme opens to further countries
Last year, the ETA scheme opened for Qatari nationals travelling to the UK. The ETA is a digital permission required to travel to the UK for those who do not usually require a physical visitor or longer-term visa to enter the UK.
From 1 February 2024, the scheme will be extended to the following countries:
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
The ETA is therefore replacing the Electronic Visa Waiver (EVW) process currently in place for many Gulf nationals.
Any individual travelling to the UK as a visitor on or after 22 February 2024 must have an approved ETA before they travel. If they have not obtained an ETA before travelling it is likely that their travel carrier will not admit/board them to start their journey. Where travellers were able to get to the UK border without an ETA it is likely they will not be granted entry into the UK and will be returned to their country of origin.
By the end of 2024, the ETA will be required for nationals of all other countries, who are not currently required to apply for a visit visa for the UK, which includes both EU and US nationals.
As a reminder, the following individuals do not require an ETA:
- British or Irish citizens
- Individuals who are settled in the UK Individuals with entry clearance or leave to remain in the UK
- British Overseas Territory Citizens (BOTC) travelling on a BOTC passport
The ETA will have to be applied for, and be granted, before any travel should be booked. In many instances approval will be virtually instant or take up to three working days. However, for some applicants (i.e. those with an adverse UK immigration history, for example) the approval process may take significantly longer. The application will cost £10 and will usually be issued for a two-year period before a new application becomes necessary.
It is important for businesses to be aware of the Government’s ETA roll out schedule so they can ensure all of their travelling employees comply with these requirements and factor the additional time it takes to obtain the ETA into their travel plans.
Restrictions on students bringing dependants
It was recently announced that the UK Government will restrict the ability of those coming to the UK on a Student Visa to bring their dependants with them. Any student whose course started after 1 January 2024 is now no longer able to bring family members to the UK as dependants on their Student Visa. Due to this change, the Home Office is expecting that there will be approximately 140,000 less dependent applications being submitted this year.
There are limited exceptions to the general ban on bringing dependants when on a Student Visa, which are:
- Students completing their PhDs;
- Those on postgraduate research-based programmes;
- Students on government sponsored programmes (six months or longer); and
- Dependent children born in the UK.
While this change will have more of an immediate effect on education establishments (it is assumed that fewer international students will choose the UK as their preferred place to study) it is likely that this change may have a longer-term impact on the availability of graduates in the UK labour market, and therefore a reduction in the number of workers available for businesses to hire.
European Union’s (EU) Entry and Exit Scheme (EES) update
The EU is introducing two separate but interconnected schemes that will affect non-EU citizens travelling to most EU countries. These are:
- the EU Entry/Exit System (EES), an automated system for registering travellers from the UK and other non-EU countries each time they cross an EU external border; and
- The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), a travel authorisation to enter the EU for citizens of non-EU countries that do not require a visa to enter the EU.
The ESS is due to be implemented from 6 October 2024. Travellers will need to scan their passports or other travel documents at a self-service kiosk before they cross any EU border. This will replace the current manual stamping of passports for visitors to the UK who do require physical visas to travel.
The ESS will cover the 25 EU member states (with the exception of Cyprus and Ireland) and four non-EU countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) which are part of the Schengen area. Those who do not possess EU or Schengen country nationalities will have to apply through the ESS before they travel, unless they have residence rights or long-term visas to stay in any of the 29 countries.
The EES is administered at the border, so no advance application to the system is required before travel.
ETIAS will apply to British and other non-EU/non Schengen country citizens travelling to all EU member states, with the exception of Ireland. It will also apply for travel to the four non-EU countries set out above. Travellers are required to apply to ETIAS before they travel.
The ETIAS authorisation will last for three years (after which it will need to be renewed), or until the holder’s passport expires (whichever is sooner). It will cost €7 for visitors aged 18 to 70. However, it will be free for under-18s and over-70s.
UK nationals and their family members who have the rights to reside in the EU because they were resident in an EU member state at the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020 are exempt from ETIAS. They can travel to other EU/Schengen countries without an ETIAS authorisation as long as they hold documents proving their status.
As with the UK’s ETA, employers need to factor these requirements into travel arrangements for their employees as approval may not be instant and can take up to 30 days in certain circumstances.
ETIAS will work in conjunction with the EES. After various delays ETIAS is now scheduled to become operational in early 2025.
School visits from France to the UK benefit from reduced entry requirements
While most EU nationals visiting the UK can no longer rely on their national ID cards to gain entry, the UK and France have decided to ease travel requirements for school children from France visiting the UK on an organised school trip. It is possible for these pupils to continue to enter the UK based on their national ID cards.
The process allows schools registered with the French Ministry of Education to bring a group of five or more children aged 18 or under from a school in France to the UK. A form must be submitted to the UK authorities before the start of the trip containing information on the school, the participants and their ID documents, permission letters from their parents and their ID documents. Even children who would ordinarily require a UK visitor visa are covered by this exemption. There is no charge for this process.
The French school will have to complete the application process while in France with their local prefecture and bring their local approval with them to show to the UK border officer on entry.
Ballot for Youth Mobility Scheme (YMS) applications from Taiwan and Hong Kong opens 31 January 2024
The first ballot for this year’s Youth Mobility Scheme will open on 31 January 2024. Nationals from Taiwan and Hong Kong (if they have a Special Administrative Region passport) will have to enter the ballot and be allocated place before they can apply for a YMS visa. Japanese and South Korean nationals no longer need to enter the ballot. There is a different ballot for young people from India (the India Young Professionals Scheme).
There will be 800 ballot places available for each location in January 2024. If the applicant is successful, they will receive confirmation by 7 February and then have 30 days to submit their visa application. Unsuccessful candidates will be informed by 16 February, they can then enter the second 2024 ballot when it opens in July 2024.
A successful applicant will be able to work, live and study in the UK for up to two years.
These visas are particularly useful for employers who are looking to recruit for vacancies in entry level jobs as they do not have any salary or skill level restrictions. Employers and employees can test whether they think they are right for each other before potentially switching the employee to a Skilled Worker visa at the end of the YMS visa validity (subject to all Skilled Worker visa requirements being met at the time of application).
Latest right to work penalties
Last year the UK Government released information on substantial increases to fines for businesses who employ those who do not have the legal right to work in the UK. These new fines have come into effect as of 13 February 2024.
Now, if an employer is found employing an illegal worker who does not have a valid right to work in the UK, employers will be subject to a civil penalty of £45,000 (up from £15,000) for an initial breach, which will increase to £60,000 (from £20,000) for subsequent breaches.
These fines can be mitigated if the employer can show that they undertook a compliant right to work check on the employee in question in the right manner, at the right time, while retaining the right evidence of the check.
If employers cannot show compliance with the right to work check regime they may be able to pay a reduced penalty if they are able to show that the breach has previously been reported, if they are working and cooperating with the Home Office, and/or if they can show that they generally have robust right to work practices in place.
In the first quarter of 2023 the Home Office issued 346 penalties to UK businesses to the value of over £6 million for employing migrants who did not have the right to work. Since 2018, almost 5,000 penalties have been handed down, with a total value of over £88 million.
193 sponsor licences were suspended (an increase of 103% on the previous quarter) and 179 licences were revoked (an increase of 184% on the previous quarter).
We are seeing a clear upwards trend in Home Office compliance visits, and less of a willingness to ‘forgive’ employer/sponsor transgressions when it comes to the prevention of illegal working and sponsor compliance. Employers should ensure that they have clear processes in place to ensure they comply with all relevant requirements, and that their staff is continuously trained on how to undertake compliant right to work checks.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at January 2024.