On 20 July 2022 the Home Office published further details of its strategy to deliver an end-to-end digital immigration system. The planned system transformation will involve a digital process for applying for permission to travel and identity verification for immigration applications, as well as using eVisas to cross the border and demonstrate entitlements within the UK.

The New Plan for Immigration: legal migration and border control strategy covers the Home Office's vision across the following areas:

  • Planning to come to the UK
  • Making an application
  • Travelling to the UK
  • Crossing the border
  • Living in the UK
  • Cross-system improvements

Planning to come to the UK

The Home Office intends to:

  • Provide clearer customer guidance on GOV.UK, with a simplified set of guidance for work visas due to be available later in 2022;
  • Roll out additional interactive customer support tools, building on the success of tools such as Check if you need a UK visa and Check if you may be eligible for a Skilled Worker visa;
  • Produce a series of 'how to' videos to assist customers to complete tasks such as making an application for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA), proving their identity or making an application for a sponsor licence;
  • By 2025, have in place a fully digital end-to-end process for individuals using the UK immigration system;
  • Reduce customer queries through improved customer information and application processes; and
  • Provide digital self-service support for customer queries using chatbot and voicebot services.

Applying to come to the UK

'Digital by default' system

The 'digital by default' agenda for the immigration system will be pursued further, with more people being able to enrol their biometrics digitally (or being able to reuse previously enrolled biometrics), making their application online and receiving an eVisa rather than physical proof of their status.

eVisas

eVisas are considered by the Government to be more secure, up-to-date and convenient to apply for and maintain. However, there are currently known issues with EU Settlement Scheme participants being able to access their UKVI account, which the Independent Monitoring Authority is currently investigating. Minimisation of such issues, combined with an effective resolution centre service will be critical to ensuring that individuals are not disadvantaged. The Home Office has stated that from 2023 their customer service agents will be in-house experts able to view all of the customer's immigration interactions via one view.

Improvements are being made to the digital customer account this year and next year to enhance useability. The Home Office is also exploring opportunities to link up government information and services, including through the government's One Login initiative.

Visa vignettes and biometric immigration documents (biometric residence permits and cards) are due to be replaced by eVisas by December 2024. This deadline coincides with the expiry of a large number of existing biometric immigration documents. These are currently only valid to 31 December 2024, even if the holder's immigration permission expires after this date.

Originally the reason for short-dating was due to the current encryption technology in the cards not meeting EU requirements from 1 January 2025. However, since the UK left the EU, the Home Office has continued to short-date with the expectation that the cards will be phased out by the end of 2024. Individuals will be given guidance on how to convert the proof of their status to an eVisa by this date.

Although not covered in the strategy document, employers will also need to be prepared to carry out an online repeat right to work check for employees with limited immigration permission who relied on a short-dated biometric residence permit as evidence of their right to work. The volume of these checks will be significant for larger employers.

Sponsorship

In terms of recent developments, the Home Office has put in place automatic checks with HMRC to be able to verify whether skilled workers are being paid in line with their certificate of sponsorship.

The timelines for sponsorship reform have been revised due to resourcing limitations. This most likely refers to the need for resources to be diverted to processing Ukraine Scheme applications.

The planned review of service standards to reduce the time needed to sponsor workers is now anticipated to be in place by Spring 2023. The new 'Sponsor a Visa' service is now anticipated to go live for limited roll-out in early 2023. The 'Manage a Licence' service is due for limited delivery by late 2023 and the 'Become a Sponsor' service by early 2024.

Travelling to the UK

A permission to travel scheme will be put in place in 2023, under which all travellers will either need a British or Irish passport, eVisa or Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA). This could have significant cost and practical implications for individuals who are currently demonstrating their long-term residence in the UK using physical documents, for example an indefinite leave stamp or certificate of entitlement to the right of abode.

ETAs are expected to be implemented in three phases, firstly in Q1 2023 for a private beta release, secondly in Q2-Q3 2023 for nationals who are currently eligible for an electronic visa waiver, and thirdly in Q3-Q4 2023 for the rest of the world.

Carriers will also become able to access a single permission to travel confirmation message from the Home Office when they submit Advance Passenger Information (API) regarding travellers who are due to board services to the UK. Initial testing of an interactive API system (iAPI) has already taken place in April 2022, and integration of a messaging system for all carriers is expected to be completed by early 2024.

Crossing the border

The Home Office hopes to improve and standardise border infrastructure and facilities by 2025. It will also aim to deliver greater levels of automation for processing arriving passengers and improved availability and functionality of eGates. There is a proposal to reduce the qualifying age for using an eGate from 12 to 10.

The role of Border Force Officers will be focused on passengers of interest, e.g. those whose identity needs to be verified, who have a risk profile, where there is specific intelligence, agency directed intervention or a safeguarding concern. Border Force may also be reformed as an organisation, in line with the recommendations arising from the Independent review of Border Force, published on 20 July 2022.

Living in the UK

The main planned change in this area will be increased system-to-system communication of immigration status information between Government departments and public authorities.

Information sharing of this type is already in place with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and NHS England and Wales. In 2022 and 2023 these will be expanded to the DVLA, Social Security Scotland, the Student Loans Company and some local authorities.

This development may result in increased convenience for many individuals who currently need to go online to prove their rights to third parties. However, there are also risks of substantial detriments to individuals if the system data on immigration status is not correct and any errors cannot be swiftly and effectively addressed.

Communications and engagement

The Home Office intends to run communication campaigns for system users as its programme of changes progresses. These will cover topics such as the upcoming requirement to apply for an ETA, as well as how to use eVisas, UKVI accounts and online services.

The Home Office will also continue to take advice from advisory groups and key stakeholders including those in business, academics and the non-profit sector. Some engagement events will be delivered in person.

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.