In October 2017 James Cleverly, then an up-and-coming backbench MP, gave a hint as to his views on business and recruitment during a debate in the Commons in which he welcomed moves to simplify and clarify the administrative procedures for employing people. “Employment is something that we all want to see expanding through the UK economy. Having started and run a small business and having recruited people to that business, I know that no employer recruits someone with the intention of kicking them out,” he said.
He spoke about SMEs and microbusinesses, explaining: “To give confidence to small and microbusinesses that they can employ people, it is incredibly important that everything to do with employment is as simple and transparent as possible.”
Now he is the home secretary, Cleverly has an opportunity to deliver on these words. While business is not strictly in his portfolio, one of the areas he is now responsible for is immigration.
Increasingly, businesses have relied on overseas workers to fill skills gaps and to fill vacancies. Indeed, according to government figures issued earlier in the autumn, there were 299,891 work visas granted to main applicants in the year ending March 2023. This is 61 per cent higher than in the year ending March 2022 and more than double (+119 per cent) compared to 2019, just before the Covid pandemic. Employers rely on overseas workers and the simpler the system for employing them, the better for business.
So what can Cleverly do to improve the process, which many currently find cumbersome and frustrating?
In August 2021 the government published its Sponsorship Roadmap, which was a policy document outlining the measures the Home Office intended to take to upgrade and streamline the work visa sponsorship process. By Q1 of 2024, the roadmap promised the sponsorship system would be “a faster end-to-end process for sponsors and the workers they employ to further reduce the time it takes to recruit people from outside the UK”.
Measures to be implemented included simpler processes reusing information the government already holds where possible, improvements in the accessibility and usability of systems, with a single online dashboard that will make it easier for sponsors to understand the status of their sponsorship licence and the actions they need to take.
While some headway has been made since the policy was published, lately progress seems to have slowed on this ambitious plan and it would help businesses if the momentum was picked up, particularly as other nations, such as Canada and Germany, are making their legal immigration systems more liberal and competitive.
This leads to the next element Cleverly could look to improve. Settlement is a significant motivating factor for skilled migrants. Relocating to a new country is a profound undertaking and not something taken lightly. Citizenship is one of the prime considerations when migrants decide which country to relocate to. The German government obviously understands this. This month (November) new measures came into place that lowered many of the criteria for many skilled workers, including the requirement for German language proficiency.
Skilled workers with professional or academic qualifications who meet all the requirements are now entitled to a residence permit. In the UK the quickest a migrant worker on a skilled worker visa can gain British citizenship is six years. In order to allow employers to remain internationally competitive, serious consideration should be given to reducing the time to citizenship.
Another issue currently troubling some businesses is the crackdown on illegal workers. The penalties issued to companies found to be employing undocumented workers are severe, even if the businesses themselves have been duped by applicants making false declarations.
Sometimes organisations are guilty only of naivety and lax compliance processes. Some members of the business immigration community suggest that rather than increasing fines for illegal working, perhaps the Home Office could run an education course, similar to a speed awareness course, as an option for those found to be in contravention of the rules. This would help businesses, rather than punish them.
In a similar vein, there is evidence that abuse of the visa system is increasing. I recently had to advise a young man who had paid a network of agents £25,000 in India to secure a care worker visa, which is illegal. Having used his life savings he arrived in the UK and was told by the company that was supposed to be employing him that they could no longer give him work. He was left destitute and had to rely on family members in the UK to survive.
This is a common occurrence and a form of human trafficking. From speaking to people within the legal and care industry it is evident that this type of visa abuse is rife. Around the same time, I was also approached by a care company that held around 50 sponsor licences. Their accounts clearly showed they were nowhere near commercially active enough to sustain that number of employees, which suggests the possibility that something untoward was happening.
Cleverly must take measures to stop this practice as a matter of urgency. Better scrutiny on companies applying for multiple sponsor licences would be a helpful first step.
Yash Dubal is director of A Y & J Solicitors