Could the UK’s Life Sciences vision be restricted by its Immigration Policy?
The Life Sciences Vision was published in July 2021 and outlines the government and the life science sector’s ambitions for the sector over the next decade. But how open for business is the UK with the immigration system that has been implemented in 2022?
The foreword by Prime Minister Rt Hon Boris Johnson, MP confirms “We will utilise the full breadth of our regulatory freedoms from Brexit to make the UK the best place in Europe to invest in a life-science business, helping to create high-skilled and high-paid jobs that will level up communities right across the country.” However, no mention is made in the paper of any special immigration measures to make it easier for businesses to set up operations in the UK. This means that businesses will need to navigate the complex UK immigration system and take into account the length of time it takes to get visas in place, which will require some serious forward planning.
We explore below some of the visa options that may be open to businesses in the sector and their relative pros and cons.
Skilled Worker visa
It is possible for a company in the UK to apply for a Home Office Sponsor Licence to sponsor migrant workers in skilled roles. This can include the owner of a business, and apply to both start-up and established companies.
Applicants for a Skilled Worker visa must have been offered a job that is on the approved list of eligible occupations, with a licensed UK employer. They must be paid in accordance with minimum salary levels and have at least an intermediate level of English language ability. The visa can be granted for up to 5 years and the settlement may be possible after 5 years.
This is a relatively straightforward visa category and the range of roles that are eligible for sponsorship is wide, giving licensed employers a valuable option when it comes to recruitment. However, holding a sponsor licence does entail a raft of compliance obligations to the Home Office in terms of record keeping and reporting.
Start-Up and Innovator visa
The Start-Up and Innovator visa route can be used by entrepreneurs who wish to establish a new business in the UK. Applicants must show that they have a unique and original business idea that is innovative, viable and scalable. It must be supported by a Home Office-approved endorsing body.
Innovator visa applicants must demonstrate that they have funding to invest in the business (subject to some exceptions). There is also an intermediate English language requirement.
A Start-Up visa is granted for 2 years with the possibility of transitioning to an Innovator visa. An Innovator visa is granted for 3 years, and an extension of a further 3 years or accelerated settlement is possible if the business meets certain performance conditions. These can include job creation, revenue generation and innovation.
Whilst this category does not require applicants to have a job offer from a licensed UK employer, in practice the requirements for the category can be difficult to meet, and obtaining endorsement usually requires a financial and/or time investment with the approving body.
Global Talent visa
The Global Talent visa route is open to individuals who are peer-recognised as leaders, or potential leaders, in academia or research, arts and culture or digital technology.
Applicants must either be endorsed by a Home Office-approved endorsing body or have won an eligible award in the applicable field. Applicants in academia or research may also qualify through having an eligible job offer, an individual fellowship or a research grant that is approved by UK Research and Innovation.
The first visa can be granted for up to 5 years. An individual may qualify for settlement in the UK after 3 or 5 years depending on their endorsement.
This could be a valuable option for applicants and institutions alike, particularly those in the academic and research sectors. It does not require significant input from a hosting institution once the visa is in place, and visa holders have more flexibility in terms of their work than those being sponsored by a licensed employer.
Global Business Mobility visa
The new Global Business Mobility route includes the UK Expansion Worker category, which replaces the Sole Representative visa route from 11 April 2022. There is also the Senior or Specialist Worker category which does not have an English language requirement.
There is no limit on the shareholding of a worker coming to the UK, therefore business founders who have more than a 50% shareholding could be eligible to apply.
Applicants must be sponsored before they can apply, meaning that the UK entity will need to hold a Home Office Sponsor Licence. Note that in most cases individuals must have been employed overseas for a 12-month period before making their application, unless an exception applies.
This route does not lead to settlement, but it may be possible to switch to an alternative route which does once someone is resident in the UK.
High Potential Individual visa
On 30 May 2022 the UK government launched a new High Potential Individual visa category, aimed at attracting recent graduates from elite overseas universities. In order to be eligible, applicants must have graduated from an institution on the government’s Global Universities List within the last 5 years. The relevant institution must appear on the list in the same year as the applicant’s degree was awarded.
Visas will be granted for 2 or 3 years, depending on the level of degree gained. This route does not lead to settlement but applicants have significant freedom in terms of their ability to work in the UK during the visa and it may be possible to switch from within the UK to an alternative route which does lead to settlement.
Other visa options
Other visa categories, such as family or study related visas, may also be available. We recommend that individuals seek tailored legal advice to ensure that all possible options are explored.
Dependant family members
All of the above visa categories can include a person’s spouse, civil partner or unmarried partner, together with children who are under the age of 18.
Immigration changes on the horizon
The UK government intends to make changes to the Innovator visa route in Autumn 2022 to facilitate investment-related migration for those who have a track record of overseas investment activity and whose UK investment will bring tangible benefits to the UK economy. An opportunity for settlement through this reformed route may be conditional on applicants demonstrating evidence of job creation through their economic activity in the Further details are due to be released prior to its proposed launch in Autumn 2022.
A further new sponsorship route, called Scale-up, is also due to launch in August 2022. The route has apparently been designed to enable the UK’s fastest-growing businesses to recruit overseas talent in a faster way, and Scale-up visa holders will be given greater freedom in terms of their ability to work in the UK than those in the other sponsorship routes. However, there are strict eligibility criteria to become a Scale-up sponsor, which may limit how useful the route proves to be in practice.
It remains to be seen whether the government’s claims that the UK is open for business are backed up by the experience of those in the Life Sciences sector. Certainly, the range of possible visa routes is being expanded this year, but each route remains very specific in terms of its eligibility criteria and requirements. So whether immigration policy will help or hinder growth in the sector may largely depend on there being a suitable match of individual circumstances and immigration rules in each case.
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