Scale-up visas: How employers can hire international talent

As more details emerge of the Government's flagship Scale-up visa, Vanessa Ganguin examines the potential benefits for employers and applicants.

Hailed as "the biggest visa improvement in a generation" by the Coalition for a Digital Economy, Chancellor Rishi Sunak used his last Budget speech to herald a "plan to make our visa system for international talent the most competitive in the world" with the new Scale-up visa at the centre of the Government's UK Innovation Strategy.

This week, the Home Office has detailed how the new Scale-up visa will work, so employers can get an idea if it will live up to the hype when launched this summer, making it easier to bring the world's top talent to Britain's flourishing start-up sector.

The substantial new 202-page Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules presented to Parliament on 15 March 2022 implements the next stage of hotly anticipated changes to the UK's post-Brexit immigration system. New work routes include the Government's flagship Scale-up visa, the Global Business Mobility visa and High Potential Individual visa.

The latest immigration statistics released this month show skilled work, which accounts for 63% of the work-related visas granted, saw the largest growth in visa numbers between 2019 and 2021 - an increase of 37,551 or 33%. The 239,987 work-related visas granted in 2021 is a 110% increase on pandemic-blighted 2020 and 25% higher than in 2019. With no more free movement with the EU, there has been an increasing need for quick and easy ways for employers to tap up talent from around the world. So is the Scale-up visa just the sort of post-Brexit immigration development we need?

Scale-up visas: Flexibility for applicants and employers

With applications open from 22 August 2022, the Scale-up visa route is intended to facilitate UK Scale-up sponsors in recruiting talented individuals with the skillset to enable Scale-up businesses to continue growing. Dependent partners and children will be able to join applicants on a five-year route to settlement in the UK.

Scale-up visas are intended to complement the other sponsored work immigration routes like Skilled Worker and the new Global Business Mobility routes. Unlike these others though, the Scale-up visa has no Immigration Skills Charge.

To qualify as a Scale-up, a sponsor would need to show annualised growth in either turnover or staffing of at least 20% for the previous three-year period and that they had a minimum of 10 employees at the start of the period.

Much of the flexibility of this new route is that unlike other immigration routes, a sponsoring employer need only confirm that an applicant is expected to work for them for at least the first six months of their visa.

Scale-up visas will have sponsored and unsponsored stages

The Scale-up visa involves two stages. The first sponsored stage will give Scale-up workers permission to stay in the UK for two years and requires a job offer from a Scale-up sponsor of up to at least six months. Sponsorship, skill level, salary, as well as English language and a financial check are all requirements similar to other sponsored routes.

The job for which the applicant is sponsored must be at a minimum skill level of RQF Level 6 - the same as the outgoing Intra-Company Transfer and the incoming Global Business Mobility routes, and the old Tier 2 visa.

The salary threshold will be at least £33,000 per annum (higher than a Skilled Worker's £25,600). It must be the going rate for the sponsored job and at least £10.58 per hour. The minimum skill level and salary requirements are both higher than the current Skilled Worker visa, but the lack of the skills charge and the short period of sponsorship may help keep costs and the administrative burden down.

However, the Home Office is yet to answer outstanding questions as to how the sponsorship side of the process will work in practice, including how and when companies can apply for a licence, and what level of administrative compliance will be expected of them.

Flexibility may be a double-edged sword

Unique to this flexible immigration route, in the second unsponsored stage of up to three years, Scale-up workers no longer require sponsorship, as long as previous UK PAYE earnings meet the above threshold during at least 50% of their initial permission to stay as a Scale-up worker. So if applying after two years under the Scale-up worker visa, they would need to show that they had sufficient PAYE earnings for at least 12 months during those initial two years.

Scale-up workers will be able to switch to different sponsored roles in the first six months, and after at least six months in sponsored work, Scale-up workers can undertake any work (including self-employment and voluntary work) except for work as a professional sportsperson or coach. After five years they and their dependants can apply for indefinite leave to remain.

For migrants, the attractiveness of the Scale-up visa is that although they need to work for a sponsor for at least six months, they can also carry out other work at the same time and after their sponsored role ends, including self-employment.

This could be a double-edged sword for employers looking to retain their services. In good news for employers (and head-hunters) they could recruit a Scale-up worker without a further visa application. Yet unlike in other sponsored routes, they are not restricted to working for you. The flip side of this freedom is that migrants will need to be especially careful to ensure that they accrue enough earnings under a PAYE scheme to score sufficient points for the next step of their visa journey.