Insight from the political party conferences

Partner and Head of Immigration at Birketts Sacha Wooldridge recently attended both the Conservative Party and Labour Party political party conferences.

With a huge focus on immigration at both conferences and many fringe events and policy speeches dedicated to this, both the Home Secretary and Immigration Minister (and their respective Shadow Ministers in opposition) gave a lot of time to the debate UK net-migration, multi-culturalism and integration of international arrivals and the skills agenda to ensure a strong domestic workforce without over-reliance on international workers.

Overall the focus on legal migration routes (specifically employer sponsored visas) was low – most policy debate focused on asylum and refugee processing, however there was unequivocal consensus between both parties that roles on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) should no longer benefit from salary concessions to be eligible for visa sponsorship – with cross-party support for the view that this wrongly discouraged improvement in wage and working conditions in sectors struggling to recruit. We can therefore expect to see this move into policy in due course.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick advised that they will continue to seek to cut dependent family member migration (those accompanying sponsored visa holders) and indicated that they might reconsider the inclusion of lower skilled roles on the SOL – there was a lot of contention that it was now possible to sponsor visas for manual labour and roles such as electricians and plumbing.

Another key area of focus was the Health and Social care visa – with shared concern at both conferences that the use of this visa had increased exponentially in recent months. Areas of concern ranged from investment in local skills/recruitment, to abuse and modern-day slavery and servitude and abuse of workers that were coming to the UK. No concrete policy proposals were made but we can confidently expect some policy review in this area imminently.

Technical updates

Visa centres in Israel and Palestine affected by conflict

Following recent events in the region, UK visa application centres in Palestine (Gaza and Ramallah) and Israel (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) are closed until further notice. Nearby centres are operating as normal, and applicants are encouraged to travel to their nearest alternative centre if safe to do so.

We will continue to monitor the situation closely and suggest alternative centres where necessary.

Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) system opens for applications

Qatar nationals are now (from 25 October) able to access and apply under the new ETA scheme – this is a new requirement for Qatar nationals travelling to the UK and arriving on or after 15 November 2023. Applications cost £10 and travellers are advised to apply early to avoid risk of delay to travel whilst the new system is implemented.

Nationals of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates will need an ETA if they are travelling to the UK on or after 22 February 2024. They will be able to apply from 1 February 2024.

Nationals of any other country do not need to apply for an ETA now. More nationalities will be added to the scheme in stages throughout 2024.

It is important for employers to factor in time to apply for an ETA before their employees can book their travel to the UK. It is also important to monitor the widening of the ETA scheme throughout 2024 so that employees know when they have to apply for an ETA before they can travel.

ETIAS delay

The European ETIAS registration scheme for visitors to the Schengen zone (mirroring the above UK ETA scheme and the pre-existing US ESTA scheme) has announced that it will now delay implementation and roll out until at least January 2025 (the scheme was originally expected to come in to force from 2024).

The delay is understood to be due to ongoing delays with the roll out of the Entry-Exit System (EES), which the ETIAS is contingent upon.

Immigration Health Surcharge increases

Following the recent increases to Home Office visa applications fees (effective from 4 October) the Government have now laid legislation implement a substantial rise in Immigration Health Surcharge payable for all visa applications with a requested duration in excess of six months.

The increase will come into effect on or just after 16 January 2024, rising from £624 to £1,035 per year of the visa application. For children, students, dependants and Youth Mobility Scheme visa applicants the fees will increase from £470 to £776 per year of the visa.

This is quite a significant increase of 66% and will affect fees for a Skilled Worker visa application in the following ways.

Three-year visa

  • Certificate of sponsorship: £239
  • Immigration Skills Charge: £3,000 (for medium sized and large organisations, £1,092 for small organisations and charities)
  • Immigration Health Surcharge: £3,105
  • Visa application: £719
  • Biometric appointment associated costs: approx. £100
  • Optional priority processing: £500

This means a three-year Skilled Worker visa could cost around £7,663, and this does not take account of any dependant visa applications for partners and children.

Five-year visa

  • Certificate of Sponsorship: £239
  • Immigration Skills Charge: £5,000 (for medium sized and large organisations, £1,820 for small organisations and charities)
  • Immigration Health Surcharge: £5,175
  • Visa application: £1,420
  • Biometric appointment associated costs: approx. £100
  • Optional priority processing: £500

This means a five-year Skilled Worker visa could cost around £12,424, and this does not take account of any dependant visa applications for partners and children.

Please note that our professional fees are not included in the above examples. However, you can rest assured that our fees are not increasing at this time.

Companies are advised where possible to apply sooner rather than later before fee increases become payable.

Migration Advisory Committee report on Shortage Occupation List released

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has recently published its report on the UK's Shortage Occupation List (SOL) for immigration purposes.

The SOL sets out professions in the UK where demand for skilled labour outstrips availability. If the job is included in the SOL it becomes eligible for a reduced salary compared to positions not included on the list.

The MAC made several recommendations, some of them are:

  • The removal of the salary discount
  • The exclusion of jobs subject to a national pay scale
  • Keeping care workers and senior care workers on the SOL
  • Removing positions that fall within a Creative Worker visa from the SOL and simplifying the recruitment process for these positions
  • Allowing asylum seekers to work in any position (or at least any sponsorable position) in the UK, not just those included on the SOL
  • Abolishing the SOL altogether, or at the very least undertaking a fundamental reform
  • If the SOL is abolished, the MAC should undertake regular salary reviews across all sponsorable positions

It is yet to be confirmed how many of the MAC's recommendations the UK Government will adopt.

It will very much depend on the employer, and which positions they are generally recruiting for, whether the suggested changes are helpful or not. For example, it may well become more expensive to sponsor migrants on a Skilled Worker visa, but it may be the case that asylum seekers could significantly reduce the shortage of labour in the hospitality sector.

We will keep you updated of any developments in this respect.

UK Home Office increases immigration application fees

The recently announced increase in UK immigration applications came into effect on 4 October. The increase is designed to contribute to the running costs of the immigration and nationality system in the UK, as well as to help fund increases in public sector pay.

Work and visit visa fees went up by 15%, family visas, settlement and citizenship application fees by 20%, and student visas by 35%. Fees for faster processing also increased. The new fees apply to all visa applications made after 4 October 2023, regardless of whether the original visa was issued before that date.

We are still waiting for confirmation of when the Immigration Health Surcharge will increase from £624 per year of the visa to £1,035.

This increase across the board will mean that the cost of recruiting workers who require a UK work visa has gone up significantly. As an example, a three-year Skilled Worker visa application for a single applicant was just above £6,000 and is now more than £7,500. A family of four previously attracted government fees of just over £12,500, this is now just under £17,500.

Employers will need to revisit their immigration and recruitment budgets to take account of these increases. You can find a full list of fees here.

Removal of administrative review option for EU Settlement Scheme applications

The UK Government has removed the option for administrative review of decisions to refuse or remove status under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), effective from 5 October 2023.

Previously, refused applications under the EUSS had a right of administrative review and appeal, which are two distinct and different processes. This included applications which were refused on eligibility grounds, or were granted pre-settled rather than settled status, or where status under the EUSS was revoked. The right of appeal against those decisions is still available.

The changes were made to bring the means of redress available to EUSS applicants in line with other immigration routes, which do not benefit from both rights of appeal and administrative review.

These changes mean that it will now be significantly more time and cost-intensive to question the outcome of an EUSS application. Administrative reviews cost £80 and the submission of the relevant form is relatively straight forward. Appeals generally require the preparation of witness statements and tribunal bundles by solicitors and having to have legal representation at tribunal hearings, usually in the form of a barrister.

Clearer guidance on returning resident applications released

A returning resident is a person who has previously held Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), but who may have potentially lost this status through a prolonged absence from the UK. Usually ILR will lapse after two consecutive years of absence from the UK, or five consecutive years for those who hold settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme (except Swiss nationals, who lose their status after four years of continuous absence).

The UK immigration rules were recently changed to allow migrants whose leave has lapsed to apply to have their ILR re-instated, even if they had permission as a visitor to the UK when they last left. Prior to this change, it was not possible to make such an application if the person had entered and left the UK as a visitor in the meantime. It is important to note that an application as a returning resident must be made before travelling to the UK.

There are some finer nuances regarding different types of leave which would need to be assessed before making an application as a returning resident, and strong ties to the UK must be evidenced, ideally throughout the period of absence.

While it is useful to have this new concession regarding visitor status, returning resident applications are rarely simple and straight-forward and there are high rates of refusals. Applicants may therefore wish to seek legal advice when preparing such an application.

Companies House number now required on the electronic Sponsor Management System

The Home Office now requires employers who hold a sponsor licence to enter their Companies House registration number on the electronic Sponsor Management System (SMS) if they have one. Employers are required to log into the SMS as soon as possible and add the required information.

This should enable the Home Office to check and process certain sponsor requests submitted through the SMS more quickly.

National Insurance number now needed for certain Sponsor Management System (SMS) changes

A number of changes to the sponsor's circumstances can be made via the SMS, such as amendments to the current Authorising Officer (AO) or Key Contact (KC) information. As of 8 October 2023, these changes now require a National Insurance number to be added to the SMS.

If the AO or KC do not have a National Insurance number, the reason why has to be stated. The Home Office reserves the right to ask for additional information and evidence showing an exemption from the UK's National Insurance contribution scheme. Failing to provide reasonable evidence, may affect any requests made. Earlier in the year, the same process was introduced for Level 1 users.

It is important to be prepared to input the National Insurance numbers of those involved in the administration of the organisation's sponsor licence and to have a clear explanation of why they may not have it. In time, as this information is added to the SMS any changes should be processed a lot more quickly than they are currently.

Changes to the visa appointment booking process in Pakistan

Changes have been made to biometric appointments in Pakistan whereby customers can no longer reschedule online appointments via the VFS website. The changes have been instituted following manipulation from unauthorised agents of the visa application centre's free appointment booking system, which prevented legitimate customers from accessing genuine and convenient appointments.

Customers who need to reschedule the date and time of their appointments are asked to contact VFS directly via

Applicants need to ensure they pick a date which is convenient and feasible, as changing the date or time of the appointment will now be a lot more time-consuming that it was previously.

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.