UK: Work Permit Review

Last Updated: 23 April 2001
Article by Bernard Andonian

The Overseas Labour Service (OLS) of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) and the Home Office have agreed upon various arrangements with a view to continuing to make the work permit scheme labour market driven and exploring the scope of creating more permit free categories within the Immigration Rules. The need for the Home Office in conjunction with the OLS to be flexible and provide for the switching of certain immigration categories into work permit employment, and furthermore, to identify shortages in certain occupations such as in the information technology, communications and electronics (ITCE) sector, and in hotel and catering, has been prompted by the requirement that the UK must be seen to be sustaining competition and thus responding to the skills shortages.

Information Technology

Insofar as the ITCE sector is concerned, the following occupations are agreed to be in short supply:-

IT Manager - such a person is regarded by the OLS as someone with a senior role, typically a person with at least seven years of experience in this particular field and having specific responsibility for planning, organising, co-ordinating and controlling IT projects, and for the development, operation and support of IT applications, systems and networks.

Systems Analyst - this occupation combines both technical and commercial knowledge to define the commercial requirements and objectives for a significant part of a business system or applications. Typically the person should have at least five years post graduate experience or three years where he/she holds a degree covering Systems Analysis.

Network Specialist - he/she normally would be involved in high level design and installation of communications networks including the provision of hardware and software, and the provision of advice on overall security of corporate networks and associated operating and recovering procedures.

Analyst Programmer - experience of both technical analysis and programming functions and playing a role in the technical aspects of delivering complete systems are essential for this occupation, as are having skills in one or more current technologies.

Software Engineer - this occupation entails indepth knowledge of operating systems, application software and software development tools and includes responsibility for design and development of systems including communications systems and networks.

Data Base Specialist - normally this occupation would require responsibility for the design, support and maintenance of corporate data bases usually entailing knowledge and experience on the utilisation of data base software within various hardware configurations.

Furthermore, skills in the following technologies are currently in particularly short supply:-

  • Java/Javascript
  • PRL/ PRLscript
  • Active server pages/ Active X and XML / DHTML

Combating Skills Shortages By Diverse Means

Multi-national companies will be allowed to transfer overseas staff into the UK by issuing their own work permits. The move was indicated last September by the Immigration Minister, Barbara Roach who said skills shortages mean that foreign workers are needed to keep the economy running.

The DfEE has drawn up a list of skilled staff within the hotel and catering field who are most acutely needed, including Asian restaurant chefs. The Government has sought minimum publicity with a low key launch on an official website which says "specialist chefs with skills in preparing ethnic cuisine" are now a high priority group. This is part of a wider review of the current key worker categories.

Furthermore, the requirement for a labour market test for extension and change of employment for existing work permit holders is removed, so that it is no longer necessary to advertise the post to give persons in the UK labour force and the EU an opportunity to apply. This makes sense because once the foreign worker is settled in the employment and has shown that his/her skills and expertise have contributed over the previous years to the business efficiency and profitability of the employer, and a track record has been established, it becomes a pointless exercise in particular to change horses in mid stream when, for example, it comes to the renewal of that foreign national’s visa and thus work permit, by giving priority to workers in the UK labour force and EU to apply for the post. Save for disrupting the employer’s business and frustrating progress, the consequences of such advertising is of no practical benefit to the employer.

Furthermore, the need for permits for supplementary work is abolished and the maximum period for which a work permit can be issued is raised from four to five years. Season tickets for workers who enter the UK for short periods on a regular basis is also introduced.

Current Requirements Under The Main Scheme

In order to meet the skills criteria to obtain a work permit, an overseas national must now have either:-

  1. A UK degree level qualification; or
  2. A Higher National Diploma (HND) level occupational qualification which entitles a person to do a specific; or
  3. A general HND level qualification plus one year’s work experience doing the type of job for which the permit is sought; or
  4. At least three years high level specialist skills acquired through doing the type of job for which the permit is sought. This type of job should be at NVQ level.

Relaxation Of The Rules For Changes In Employment And Switching

Insofar as change of employment is concerned, if the person employed changes the address of where they work but the job remains the same, the employer does not need to carry out a resident labour market test or apply again for a permit. However, if the person’s job changes significantly, the employer will need to apply again for a work permit.

If the employer needs to extend a work permit a recruitment search is no longer required if the job remains the same. If this involves a change of occupation, a recruitment search will need to be carried out, however, as before.

Where an extension application is submitted for an existing key worker, there is now no requirement for a resident labour market test. If the OLS has approved a key worker application which has not had the required three year specialist experience, the OLS may be able to approve exceptionally if the new application is for the same occupation.

Insofar as students are concerned, the Training and Work Experience Scheme (TWES) is in the process of review to ensure that arrangements better reflect the needs of employers and individuals, and in this regard the DfEE and the Home Office are investigating ways of making it easier for students to switch to work permit employment upon completion of a course, such as accountancy or law.

Proposed Changes And Reasons For Review

The DfEE has already taken over from the Home Office some aspects of the extension of leave to remain process in relation to, for example, intra-company work permit applications to provide a one-stop-shop for employers. Translation of work permit guidance into ethnic minority languages will be provided and a user panel will be established. Furthermore, the business process of handling work permit applications will be re-engineered to improve service standards.

A facility to submit applications by email will be introduced and the OLS website will be further developed to provide better access and links with key partners and more regular communications between the service and customers. Email links between the DfEE, Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be developed to improve transmission of information to posts abroad and ports of entry.

At the moment, no decision has been arrived at on whether to charge customers for making work permit applications.

As it can be seen, some changes have already taken place and other proposed changes can be implemented quickly and relatively easily. Others including those where other Government departments will be involved are more complex and require further work. In this regard, enquiries into the investigation process that Russian applicants and some other Eastern European nationals have to go through, will mean that there will continue to be a delay in the granting of work permits to them.

The reason why the review was set up was not because it was a response to a crisis or widespread dissatisfaction with the previous arrangements. It was, in fact instigated to ensure that arrangements were well placed to take account of recent and forecast changes in domestic and international labour markets. Ministers wanted to ensure that work permit arrangements were modernised and were able to support Government policies towards maintaining a competitive growing, low inflation economy in relation to DfEE policies on employment and training within the overall framework of immigration policy.

Insofar as the stage at which the work permit review is at currently, the first stage was to conduct a fundamental review of the purpose of the work permit arrangements with the report to DfEE Ministers setting out options for change. This has now been completed and Ministers have decided to make a number of other changes which will be implemented in the coming months. They have also decided that further work should be done to test some radical options to carry out more in-depth reviews of specific areas of the current arrangements.

Future Consequencees Of The Review

The Work Permit Review will mean that more than 30,000 extra overseas workers will be granted work permits next year as part of a Government drive to allow more well qualified foreign recruits into the UK.

The figure, an increase of around 40% on the 90,000 permits issued last year, follows a relaxation of the rules unveiled in October 2000. Margaret Hodge, the Employment Minister, in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry, on Monday 16th October said that the Government wanted to respond to the "acute shortages" in sectors such as ITCE. Failure to do she said so would "inhibit growth".

The Minister also pinpointed shortages among doctors and nurses, technicians and the hotel and catering industries. She said: "If we are to maintain our competitiveness and to be ahead of the game, we need to have a system which enables us to attract the brightest and the best and which enables us to respond swiftly and efficiently to changing labour market pressures".

The initiative is separate from the debate started in September 2000 by Barbara Roach, the Home Office Minister, when she suggested that Britain needed to relax immigration laws to admit more skilled workers.

As the Employment Minister Mrs. Hodge announced the initiative on 16th October, the Home Office announced that a Sikh barrister had been appointed as the watchdog of Britain’s visa system. The move is designed to boost confidence in the system amongst ethnic minorities.

Rabinder Singh 36, a human rights specialist, who helped to found Matrix Chambers with Cherie Booth QC will oversee the fairness of the system.

The unrest and proposed changes will pave the way for a substantial increase in the number of overseas workers, since increasing localisation will mean that the transfer of individuals between countries would inevitably increase. Global businesses employ a global workforce, and the UK must respond to that".

The Government also accepts that amongst asylum seekers in the UK, there are a number of professionals such as foreign doctors, surgeons and nurses who at present are unable to work, or because of their immigration status find it difficult to secure a post. It is proposed that such professionals and other foreign skilled medical staff should be allowed swift access to the labour market without difficulty as this move can only be in the interests of the NHS Trust which at present is in dire need of more qualified medical staff.

In conclusion, the UK requires a system which enables the country to recruit the best talents available internationally. This has become a more pressing issue as the country is experiencing skills shortages. The move to make the work permit system more flexible is likely to provoke criticism from certain hardliners on immigration, but such individuals have to move with the times.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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