How to strengthen the UK’s short term mobility system

Access to the world’s best talent is mission critical for UK-based financial and related professional services businesses. It is essential for the UK to remain a global hub for industry expertise and that it continues to produce the best and most innovative products and services. But the UK’s current short-term mobility rules make it hard for businesses to draw on the strengths of their global talent during short-term UK projects.

The UK should seize the opportunity to make short-term business mobility easier by allowing employees to enter the UK for short term productive activity without needing a work visa. This would strengthen the UK’s competitiveness and capacity for innovation and help underpin the UK’s status as the world’s leading international financial centre.

What is short term mobility?

UK-based financial and professional services businesses often use short-term mobility routes to bring workers from international offices to the UK to support UK-based teams on short-term projects. Examples include asking:

  • international managers to meet new clients and customers in the UK
  • subject matter experts to train UK employees to use a new product
  • market experts to train UK employees on how to export services to their jurisdiction
  • technical experts (e.g. software engineers) to visit the UK for a short training course
  • employees who moved to the EU to support EU customers and clients to get training and support from their UK office.

Using short-term business mobility routes is not an alternative to hiring people in the UK. Short-term business workers do not become UK-based workers who compete with domestic talent: they remain overseas workers and only carry out short, targeted projects before returning home.

What are the limitations of the UK’s current short-term mobility system?

Financial and related professional services businesses find the UK’s short-term mobility system challenging because:

The volume of applications has risen sharply since Brexit.
Employees coming from the EU for short UK projects now need a visa. The system is struggling with the additional applications. For example, there is a shortage of English language tests available to book, which is a requirement of the current application process.

More applications mean higher costs.
Businesses need to hire immigration services providers to manage extra applications. SMEs are struggling with the extra costs.

It takes too long to apply.
Businesses need to service clients immediately. But it can take six weeks to process an intra-company visa. Before applying, businesses need to do internal checks. It can take 12 weeks to get a visa that enables one day’s work.

There is an over reliance on super-priority visa routes across the industry.
These are much more expensive, limited (businesses are not allotted many), and have also been suspended during the Ukraine crisis.

The intra-company visa route is too limited.
Employees of a UK-based business cannot get a visa unless they have worked at their company for over one year (or earn £73,900+). Many employees (e.g. junior employees on work rotations, interns and employees from lower-cost jurisdictions) do not qualify and this disadvantages the UK operation in terms of accessing specific skills and being part of global talent programmes.

There are arbitrary distinctions between the activities that are permitted by different visas which make it very difficult for firms to know which visa to apply for.
For example:

  • A business visitor visa allows the holder to meet clients, but does not let them work with colleagues to prepare for the meeting, nor do any immediate follow-up.
  • Business visas can also be unnecessarily restrictive, for example, permitting managers to come to the UK to train their team by telling them how to book a trade, but not allowing them to show them how to do it.
  • The permitted activities in the business visitor route do not specifically include email correspondence and under the permitted activities in the ICT route, any email correspondence is limited to correspondence on internal projects with UK employees of the same corporate group.

How can the UK adopt a more competitive short-term business mobility policy?

The UK can resolve the frictions outlined above by refining the short-term global mobility stream through Intra-Corporate Transferee (ICT) reform that would allow employees to enter the UK for short-term productive activity without a work visa. This reform would ensure that the UK keeps control of who enters the country – using the controls associated with sponsorship – while enabling the flexibility of visa-free entry. It could be achieved through two steps:

1.  Applicants are required to hold an ICT Certificate of Sponsorship by the UK sponsor, enabling them to perform productive work for up to six months. This ensures there is sufficient oversight and control of the sponsored worker and the work they are undertaking.

2.  The applicant enters the UK without applying for a visa prior to departure. Sponsor notifications are made on departure.

These small but important changes will make the UK a more attractive hub for global talent and help to realise the government’s ambition of being a global hub for innovation. It will enable UK-based financial and related professional services businesses to leverage their global talent networks to produce even more globally attractive products and services, bringing more high-skilled jobs, skills development, and sustainable investment to the UK.

More information about these policy recommendations can be found in our ‘Global talent mobility: Ensuring UK competitiveness’ paper published in partnership with the City of London Corporation and EY.