Number of work-related visas plummets by a third in a year, figures show

Experts urge employers to apply for sponsor licences and prepare their recruitment systems for when hiring recovers after the pandemic

The number of work-related visas granted has dramatically decreased over the last year, according to recent data from the government, with the skilled worker visa route seeing the largest fall.

The latest Home Office figures – which include the first quarterly statistics since freedom of movement with the EU ended on 31 December 2020 – found the overall number of work-related visas granted was down by more than a third (37 per cent) between the years ending March 2020 and March 2021.

Skilled worker visas accounted for nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of those granted, but this was also the route that saw the largest fall, dropping by a third (33 per cent) on the previous year.

According to the data, most of this fall was because of a decrease in grants of intra-company transfer (ICT) visas, which fell by almost three-quarters (72 per cent) during the year ending March 2021. Although the Home Office attributed most of this decrease to the pandemic, the number or ICT visas had also fallen in the last few quarters before the Covid pandemic.

Grants for temporary worker visas were down by 43 per cent, and youth mobility visas saw a significant decrease of almost two-thirds (65 per cent).

In contrast, the number of visas granted to seasonal workers almost quadrupled to 10,659, up from 2,861 the previous year. The Home Office attributed this to the quota increase for this route, which was increased from 2,500 in 2019 to 30,000 this year.

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The number of grants for the European Communities Association Agreement (ECAA) businessperson route also saw an increase of almost a third (31 per cent), which the report suggested was a “surge” in applications and grants as people applied before the visa route closed to new applicants at the end of 2020.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, was not surprised most of the numbers were low.

She explained the statistics were the result of a combination of the pandemic – which reduced demand for visas – and the end of free movement, noting that Europeans living in the UK before the end of December would not need to apply for visas.

However, Sumption was concerned the number of organisations with sponsor licences had not increased significantly following the end of free movement, despite the fact that going forward employers wanting to hire EU citizens would need a licence to do so.

In the year ending March 2020, just 31,202 firms were on the register as sponsors for work, and this number only rose to 33,952 in the year ending March 2021, according to the Home Office’s national statistics on sponsorship.

“It raises the question whether businesses are prepared for the new immigration system,” Sumption said.

“It's possible that some [employers] will get quite surprised when they next try to hire an EU citizen and realise there is actually now this quite substantial process of getting a sponsor licence first, not to mention everything that follows in terms of fees and administration.”

Chetal Patel, partner at Bates Wells, echoed Sumption’s concerns. “Organisations haven’t managed to get Brexit ready yet as they’ve had other more pressing items to deal with during Q1, such as recovering from the pandemic,” she said, adding that the sponsorship system was “restrictive and expensive”, which could deter some employers.

However, she did project that employers would now start getting their sponsor licences. “Businesses are becoming more alive to the potential recruitment issues they may face from 1 July”, she said, referencing the date when the EU settlement scheme closes.

Patel advised employers prepare their recruitment systems for when hiring picked up, warning that the new migration rules could open employers up to the risk of discrimination claims if they are found to have not hired someone because of their nationality.

“Businesses need to ask the right questions at the right time in order to assess what options are available for hiring staff,” Patel said. “Does the application process ask at the outset if an individual has the right to work in the UK? If a prospective employee states that they don’t have the right to work in the UK, is the individual immediately put in the ‘no’ pile?”

Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK, also suggested businesses that rely on overseas talent, especially from the EU, should apply for a sponsor licence if they don’t currently have one. It was, he explained, the “most cost-effective and efficient route” for hiring individuals from overseas, and that having a licence could also put businesses at an advantage compared to other potential employers.

“Organisations that have ICT visa holders working for them may want to consider switching those to the skilled worker visa which allows for settlement; investing in these employees now will hopefully result in a loyal working relationship,” he added.