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Immigration: Highly Skilled Migrant Programme

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

My honourable friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Liam Byrne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I am today announcing changes which the Home Office is making to the highly skilled migrant programme.

We believe that properly managed migration is in the interests of the UK and that we should aim to attract the brightest and the best from around the globe. The highly skilled migrant programme (HSMP), which was launched in 2002, has played a crucial role in ensuring that we do this. It allows individuals with exceptional skills to come to the United Kingdom to seek work or opportunities for self-employment. Highly skilled migrants contribute to the economy and help to create opportunities for UK workers. The UK has benefited from the contribution which they make, and it is important that we continue to do so.

That is why we are making changes to the programme today, which will build on its past success to make it more effective in attracting the most highly skilled migrants to the UK. We will do this by introducing more objective and transparent criteria which lead to the award of points under the scheme. Some of the current points-scoring criteria are subjective and so are difficult for prospective applicants to measure themselves against and for caseworkers to judge. We are replacing them with a set of more objective attributes, which will award points for previous academic and professional qualifications, previous earnings, and age, as well as bonus points for previous work (or study, in some cases) in the UK. Holders of MBA degrees from certain institutions will still be able to receive all the points necessary to be approved, for having that qualification. We are also introducing a mandatory English language requirement, outside the points structure, for both initial and extension applications under HSMP. It is right that those who come to work in highly skilled jobs should be able to speak English, which is integral to labour market success.

We are also making a change to the requirements for those who have already been granted leave under HSMP and who apply to extend it. The current extension test is that applicants should have taken all reasonable steps to become lawfully economically active in the UK. We are replacing this with a points test and a mandatory English language requirement, similar to those faced by applicants applying to the programme for the first time. These tests will make it easier to curtail abuse within the scheme and will ensure that applicants who are granted further leave under the HSMP have demonstrated their ability to make a contribution to our economy.

I am also announcing new rules relating to the verification of documents submitted in HSMP applications. This will give entry clearance officers and caseworkers three key new powers:

We will specify the documents that applicants are required to provide as evidence of their points claims and of their English language ability. This is to ensure that we can verify documents independently, and will help to discourage abusive applications. It will also make the application process easier for bona fide applicants, maintaining the UK's competitive advantage as a destination for high achievers.

We will now refuse applications outright when documents which are not genuine have been submitted, whether or not they are material to the application. Such applicants should not be able to qualify under the scheme and are unlikely to benefit the UK.

We will also be able to refuse cases where we have reasonable grounds to suspect that documents are not genuine, which remain after we have applied verification checks.

These policies will not disadvantage genuine applicants, but will help to ensure that the scheme is both robust against abuse and targeted towards those who will benefit the UK. We will ensure that the amended programme is kept under review.

As of tomorrow, the current HSMP rules will be deleted and the programme will then be suspended for 27 days. We are taking these steps to avoid a rush of speculative applications by people who would wish their applications to be considered under the old rules, which is what happened after the publication of the Command Paper on the points-based system. The suspension will enable us to make the transition effectively to the new rules and ensure that current levels of customer service are maintained when the new arrangements are introduced. In the interests of good customer service, we have made sure that this will not disadvantage applicants substantively. Applications made for leave to remain under HSMP during the suspension period will not be returned; they will be accepted as valid and will be considered against the new rules after the suspension period. This means that nobody's leave will expire because of the suspension, provided that they make in-time applications. Migrants in this situation will also be given the chance to submit new evidence to show that they meet the new rules. Guidance on the new arrangements will be published tomorrow.

We also recognise that there will be people who are currently working or self-employed in the UK but who may not be able to meet the new test for extending their leave. Many of these people will have been of real benefit to the UK, and we do not want to lose their contribution. We are therefore introducing specific transitional arrangements for people who have been self-employed or working as an independent contractor, but who will not be able to extend their leave under the new test. For people who have been employed, but cannot extend their leave under HSMP, we will make it easier to switch into work-permit employment.

These changes are good for applicants, because they will make the application process easier, clearer and more objective. They are good for the UK, because they will keep us competitive in attracting skilled workers who will be successful in the labour market. And they are good for employers, who will be more able to recruit highly skilled migrants. They will therefore bring HSMP closer in line with the Government's aims for migration, including supporting an objective set by the IND review to,

“boost Britain's economy by bringing the right skills here from around the world”.

These changes will ensure that the HSMP remains one of our flagship immigration schemes. And I am confident that they will help us to maintain public confidence in our immigration system, and to make the case for managed migration where it is in the interests of the UK.

A statement of changes in the Immigration Rules and amendments to the Immigration (Leave to Remain) (Prescribed Forms and Procedures) Regulations 2006 are being laid before Parliament today to give effect to these changes.