The Home Office have released a Statement of Changes which includes changes to be made to the rules for visitors coming to the UK, particularly in relation to their permitted activities.
On 7 December 2023, the Home Office released Statement of Changes HC 246 with various changes to the Immigration Rules to be implemented prior to the end of January 2024.
The Home Office had invited feedback from immigration law practitioners as part of a consultation process regarding planned reforms to the visitor route in June 2023. However, the announced changes to the various appendices of the immigration rules, to take effect on 31 January 2024, unfortunately fall short of expectations, failing to go as far as expected in reforming and expanding the permitted activities for business visitors.
The visit rules as they currently stand give little flexibility to business visitors in the UK. There is a strict prohibition on working in the UK which includes undertaking a work placement or internship, and this often causes difficulty for UK employers who wish to give the opportunity for overseas employees or prospective future employees to come to the UK to experience or oversee business practice in the UK. Whilst there are currently various permitted activities for visitors confirmed in Appendix Visit: Permitted Activities of the Immigration Rules, these often fall short in their usefulness either by failing to include commonly required activities, excluding client-facing work, or being drafted too restrictively so that they are of little use.
What are the changes?
The planned changes are as follows:
Expansion of permitted intra-corporate activities
The prohibition on working directly with clients is being removed; however, this comes with a caveat that client facing activity must be incidental to the visitor’s employment abroad and must be part of a service being delivered by the UK organisation. It cannot be a project or service that is being delivered directly to the UK client by the visitor’s employer overseas.
Clarification on remote working in the UK
Consistently with other countries, visitors are permitted to work remotely whilst they are in the UK, so long as remote working is not the primary purpose of their visit. This is a point that has been confirmed in accompanying Home Office guidance for a while, so nothing new, but it’s welcomed to now see it confirmed in the rules.
Expansion of permitted activities for scientists, researchers, academics, and legal professionals
Scientists, researchers and academics will now be allowed to conduct research in the UK as part of their visit. Currently, scientists and researchers can only conduct independent research and academics can only conduct research for their own purposes if on sabbatical leave from their home institution. The Home Office do note that these changes will not apply to academics applying for a 12 month visit visa (rather than the standard 6-month duration), or if they are applying to extend their permission from within the UK.
Permitted activities for legal professionals are also being expanded. Overseas legal professionals are currently only permitted to visit the UK to give evidence as an expert witness or to advise a UK based client on specific international litigation and/or an international transaction. This section will be expanded to permit the giving of advice more generally, to provide advocacy, to provide arbitration/mediation services, to litigate or to complete transactional legal services.
Expansion of Permitted Paid Engagements (PPE) and simplification of process
The PPE rules will be amended. Speakers at conferences will be added to the PPE list meaning they will be able to be paid for this activity whilst here as a visitor.
The process for undertaking PPE in the UK will also change, as this category of people will now fall under the standard visitor route, meaning that a specific PPE visa is not required. The new rules do however state that PPE visitors must still have arranged their PPE activity prior to travel to the UK, and this must be undertaken within 30 days of arrival in the UK.
How far do the changes go?
Although some changes are certainly welcome, the latest statement falls short of what practitioners hoped that this would include. There will be no change to the restriction on work placements or internships, despite requests during the consultation process that a short period of work shadowing be inserted as a permitted activity to the rules.
One sector that is particularly struggling because of this prohibition on work placements is the veterinary industry. Unlike overseas graduates from medical, dental or nursing schools, who are permitted to undertake unpaid clinical attachments or observer posts in the UK, veterinary graduates are not able to undertake such activities in the UK. This is despite the fact that veterinary graduates have a similar need for such practical experience prior to qualifying in this area and the fact that the UK continues to have a shortage of qualified veterinary professionals to fill jobs in the UK (reflected by the fact that these roles are currently included in the shortage occupation list).
Options for employers
Unfortunately, for now at least, employers who wish for overseas nationals to undertake work placements or internships will be left to consider the following options:
- sponsoring under the Skilled Worker route
- sponsoring under the Global Business Mobility: Graduate Trainee route
- third-party sponsorship under an approved Government Authorised Exchange scheme
- taking on an intern who has permission to work in the UK under a non-sponsored immigration category, such as the Graduate route
Sponsored categories will require the employer to meet specific requirements relevant to the chosen route which may not be feasible, and also comply with sponsorship duties in relation to the period of sponsorship. The final, non-sponsored option, will require individuals to have existing immigration status, potentially limiting the pool of talent significantly. The Graduate visa route, introduced in 2021 to allow international graduates to kick-start their careers in the UK after finishing their studies at a UK university, had helped with this issue to some extent. Unfortunately, the government’s recent announcement of a 5-point plan to reduce net migration includes a review of the Graduate visa scheme in order to ‘prevent abuse.’
Risks of getting it wrong
It’s vital that employers ensure that visitors to their UK organisation are only undertaking permitted activities during their trips. Failure to comply with the rules for visitors, particularly the prohibition on working in the UK, can lead to civil penalties for employers if someone is found to have been working illegally in the UK. When these civil penalties are set to increase to £45,000 per breach for a first offence and £60,000 per breach for repeat offenders, this is certainly something that will want to be avoided. There are also risks of compliance action against sponsor licence holders.
Individuals found to be working illegally are also at risk. Working in the UK without correct permission to do so is a breach of immigration laws and can result in refusal of future applications to remain in the UK or being subject to a re-entry ban of up to 10 years.
It's hoped that in future, the Home Office may reconsider the visitor rules and permitted activities again. Particularly in light of their repeated commitment to reduce net long-term migration figures, surely allowing greater flexibility for business visitors to the UK would be a sensible way to support this aim. In the meantime, employers must ensure to only consider taking on interns or other workers who have the correct immigration status to do the role in question.