If Labour wants growth, it should reimagine the Global Talent visa

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Nick Nason is a solicitor at Edgewater Legal who regularly provides advice to clients applying under the Global Talent immigration route.

The Global Talent visa route is a stated part of the UK’s industrial strategy, to ensure – apparently – it is the most attractive country to live in and develop new ideas.

The government has correctly identified that global leaders are very likely to bring growth to the UK, and that as many as possible should be encouraged to apply.

And yet, in its execution, the policy is profoundly lacking: our offer to global leaders shouldn’t be that we are making our immigration system slightly less bad.

This is a competition for international talent: we should be flying these people in.

The problem

The Global Talent route sits in an immigration system the fundamental purpose of which is to exclude and control numbers.

It is the frontend of what has previously been called – as official government policy – a hostile environment.

Most immigration lawyers tend to look at the route as straightforward, and a great option if endorsement is a possibility. And – relatively – it is.

But this is a Stockholm Syndrome response from those working every day in this system.

Taking a step back, if you are genuinely serious about competing for international talent, the following aspects of the UK offer need to be overhauled.

Huge upfront cost

If endorsed, you have to pay an extortionate amount to apply for the Global Talent visa (like anyone else applying for a UK visa).

As an individual, you are paying £6000-£7000 in government fees to come for a 5-year period. If you want to bring a partner and two kids, the cost for altogether is likely to exceed £20,000.

Most of these fees comprise the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS). The fact that people will pay this again through their national insurance contributions when they work in the UK makes the charging of these fees scandalous.

If you have other options in terms of countries to which you could take your talent, this is likely to provide an immediate disincentive.

Endorsement process

The guidance for applications to Tech Nation is 7,500 words long. It is often contradictory and opaque.

We have seen applications refused for technical reasons e.g. improper formatting of documents, or because the e-signing of documents has not followed the protocol set out in the guidance.

We have seen an increasing tendency in other endorsing bodies to adopt a tick-box approach.

This is insane. This is not the points-based system. Decision-makers should be taking a holistic view of an application.

The whole point of outsourcing these endorsement processes was to avoid the “computer-say-no” approach often adopted by the Home Office to immigration applications.

Ridiculous immigration rules

If a person happens to be in the UK on a visit when they are endorsed, they have to return to their country of nationality or residence to make their visa application.

Why? What is this achieving?

Once in the UK, you have to make sure you don’t spend more than 180 days out of the UK in any 12-month period in order to qualify for settlement.

There are some limited exceptions e.g. for academics undertaking research activity, but everyone else has to abide by these rules.

We are working with an internationally acclaimed opera singer who was refused Indefinite Leave to Remain due to excess absences.

Music, performing and visual arts was worth £11.2bn to the British economy in 2022.

What are we doing?

Some solutions

If Labour is serious about growth, there are some straightforward fixes.

These can be achieved at low initial cost, and – for those worried about headlines in the Daily Mail – are unlikely to make a ripple in the immigration statistics given the tiny numbers that are eligible in the route, even if the rules are relaxed.

Endorsing body: approach

The endorsing bodies need to be looking for reasons to grant applications, not refuse. Too often we are seeing endorsing bodies treating guidance as a black-letter law.

We have seen this more positive approach in other routes and schemes, for example with the Windrush Scheme, where decision-makers would pro-actively look for ways in which a person might qualify.

This demonstrates how policy can be designed where there is agreement about the need to accommodate or treat a particular group of people.

If the government is serious about translating its policy objectives into action, this is a way of achieving this.

Endorsing criteria

The endorsement bar is set way too high.

In tech, we see applicants who have done amazing things in AI, or in blockchain, but who don’t necessarily meet all of the criteria.

These are the growth areas of the future: any global talent route needs to accommodate this talent, even if it is not adjudged ‘exceptional’.

Across academia, why not accept automatically anyone with a PhD in a STEM subject?

What’s the worst that could happen for a government obsessed with numbers? We’ll have several thousand more very smart people in the country, balanced against huge potential upside.

It’s difficult to write a negative headline based on this.

Scrap visa fees

You can follow the logic – even if you violently disagree – of charging excessive fees for a thing you don’t want people to do (i.e. move to the UK).

If your overall aim is to reduce migration, it makes sense to provide a disincentive whilst simultaneously making as much money as possible from those that choose to relocate.

That argument collapses however where the aim is to attract people to come where the entire point of the exercise is to encourage people to apply.

The fact that the Immigration Health Surcharge – the main bulk of the fees in any application – will be paid again through a person’s general taxes, makes it doubly offensive.

A solution would be to offer individuals a way of claiming back the IHS if they could show that their national insurance contributions had reached a certain level, or to provide a tax break up to the amount paid.

This should be applied across the system – of course – but would at least make the UK’s offer to international talent seem more reasonable and less affronting compared with alternatives they may be considering.

Change the immigration rules

Firstly, endorsed applicants should be able to apply from wherever in the world they are, with whatever status they have, including from within the UK.

The idea that people shouldn’t ‘skip the queue’ and should be required to go home to apply is bonkers in most routes, but particularly in the context of the UK’s claim to be making an attractive offer to international talent.

Secondly, we should grant settlement on entry, including for dependants.

If we’re confident in our endorsement processes, why are we asking international talent to go through a trial period?

This would resolve the 180 days in any 12-month period issue: this is the global talent route, usually involving people who are in demand around the world and who will need to travel regularly.

We already allow – bizarrely – academics in the route to waive excess absences above the 180 days for ‘research activity’.

Why not follow the logic of this and grant settlement on arrival to everyone regardless of the amount of time they have spent in the UK?

If you are looking for further information or assistance regarding this visa then please do not hesitate to contact us at Edgewater Legal.