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09 June 2021
As part of the government's 'new plan for immigration', the Home Office released a strategy statement on 24 May 2021 setting out its plans for legal migration and border control. The statement provides an overview of what is an ambitious programme of change, spanning both operational and policy transformation.
The statement outlines elements of the Home Office's planned multi-year programme for modernising, simplifying and developing visa routes within the UK immigration system following the end of free movement, as well as achieving greater border security. It covers immediate priorities for 2021/2022, as well as planned changes up to 2025. While many of the policies and initiatives mentioned are not new, the statement does provide some useful information on timelines for implementation.
The Home Office's 2021/2022 priorities include:
The Home Office's vision for its programme of change up until 2025 relies heavily on use of technology to:
Ultimately, the Home Office hopes to improve both ease of use and public confidence in the system through delivering a streamlined, modernised, more secure digital service. It is currently seeking input from academics, technology vendors and carriers to do this.
The Electronic Travel Authority system is due to be made available by the end of 2024, and the Home Office is investigating the possibility of using contactless passage through border controls. This is intended to speed up both the process of boarding carrier services and moving through border controls on arrival.
There are also plans to make most identity checks digitally and for applicants to present themselves once at a visa application centre to enrol their fingerprints where they are required to do so (some applicants who are eligible to use the ChipChecker app will not have to provide fingerprints at all).
Evidence of immigration status is expected to become entirely digital by the end of 2024. The Home Office will follow a phased process to achieve this transition. This will also be extended out to make electronic immigration status services available to those who have been in the United Kingdom for many years and who currently have only paper documents to prove their status.
The system will prioritise self-service for applicants, with online tools and guidance being emphasised, but alongside a national assisted digital service for those who find using technology difficult. Customer contact will become more digital, through the use of digital customer accounts and communication channels.
In terms of policy advances, the intended expansion of immigration options will be modest and will continue to focus on those with the greatest potential to bring economic benefit to the United Kingdom.
New unsponsored points-based route
The new unsponsored points-based route must necessarily be distinguishable from the Global Talent route; however, it will still be intentionally narrow with a view to avoiding the likelihood that participants will end up filling low-skilled roles in the UK economy. The scale-up stream could end up being a form of quasi-sponsorship and it remains to be seen how and why this route may be attractive to scale-ups in comparison to the Skilled Worker route.
Global Business Mobility route
The Global Business Mobility route covers too many purposes for it to be a truly simplified offering. More likely, it will be an umbrella route with various distinct strands. If it includes a points-based test, it is likely to be one under which the eligibility criteria are simply assigned points to make up a fixed overall points threshold rather than a true points-based test where meeting various combinations of points-scoring criteria will lead to approval.
Family, Private Life and Settlement routes
It is unfortunate that the Home Office has not yet confirmed any intention to review Family, Private Life and Settlement route policy in terms of eligibility criteria, so far ignoring the Migration Advisory Committee's suggestion in its 2020 annual report to review the evidence base for the family reunification minimum income requirement. Instead, it promises only to simplify the routes as part of the ongoing Immigration Rule simplification project.
Youth Mobility Scheme
Expansion of the Youth Mobility Scheme arrangements to include EEA countries and Switzerland appears to have dropped off the policy agenda. For the time being, this leaves limited options for geographically proximate young people who might like to come to the United Kingdom as au pairs, seasonal workers or flexible workers in the retail and hospitality sectors. If not addressed, this increases the risk of non-compliance with visitor immigration conditions, at least from the point at which the travel and social interaction complications of the COVID-19 pandemic become less of a problem.
Using digital technologies for application processing and immigration status verification
The emphasis on harnessing new technology is both exciting and concerning as it could revolutionise ease for users of the system on the one hand, but could also pose significant practical difficulties if not successfully achieved.
The technology that has been developed to run the EUSS and to deal with processing and public health issues presented by the pandemic provides a good starting point; however, it still has quirks that require workarounds. The Home Office also needs to address a fundamental issue in the digital status system, which does not currently deal well with issues such as change of nationality or the issuing of new identity documents. It is currently possible to have more than one active digital immigration status record, which is something that needs to be urgently addressed to avoid confusion and potential inadvertent breach of immigration conditions or overstaying.
Users of the system also need to be provided clear information to help them to evidence their UK immigration status over time, particularly if they wish to settle and naturalise in the United Kingdom in due course or if they are uncomfortable using digital technology.
Use of electronic systems for pre-arrival clearance and border checks
Although this is not emphasised in the statement, the United Kingdom is considerably behind other countries in areas such as electronic travel authorisation and availability of departmental records at border controls. It is worrisome that Border Force is not already able to verify whether a person has applied for or been granted status under the EUSS. With the main scheme deadline approaching on 30 June 2021, the ability to do so must be prioritised to minimise the risk that individuals are not unlawfully denied entry to the United Kingdom.
The plan to modernise and streamline the operation of the sponsorship system is welcome as the technology currently being used is in need of replacement and current arrangements are costly and time consuming to comply with. Sponsors should familiarise themselves with the sponsorship system roadmap once released and should consider participating in stakeholder engagement opportunities offered by the Home Office to help shape the reformed arrangements.
Self-service model for users
The Home Office's aspiration for a self-service model may work for some users of the system; however, there will still be a need for adequate assistance to be available to those who are uncomfortable with digital technology. This will likely need to go well beyond the assisted digital service and digital customer contact. The systems should also cater for the fact that sponsors and other users may still prefer to have the assistance of immigration advisers despite the availability of online tools and guidance aimed at making engagement with the system straightforward.
For further information on this topic please contact Andrew Osborne, Stephen O'Flaherty, Sam Koppel or Li Xiang at Lewis Silkin by telephone (+44 20 7074 8000) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). The Lewis Silkin website can be accessed at www.lewissilkin.com.
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