Government proposals to cut permit bureaucracy lack steel

Tony Haque, a solicitor with Baker & McKenzie, wonders if the new permit plans will stem the skills crisis

Tony Haque, a solicitor with Baker & McKenzie, wonders if the new permit plans will stem the skills crisis

Government minister David Blunkett boldly announced last week: "Work permit bureaucracy to be slashed!" The Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and his minister Margaret Hodge, are doing their best to be seen as being at the cutting edge of innovative, responsive and fast-acting government. But the key question being asked by those involved in the IT sector is: will the changes actually make a difference?

The "one-stop shop" for work permit renewals, unveiled by Blunkett, could be of benefit. The drawback is that the employee has to send his passport to the Overseas Labour Service (OLS) with the renewal application. Anyone who has experienced the frustration of having their passport tied up at the Home Office in Croydon, Surrey, will not be enthralled at this prospect.

In a fast-moving global economy, flexibility is critical. The ability to send an employee abroad - at short notice - can be vital. The need is even greater for the senior and highly skilled employees. Until the procedure is changed, the new voluntary scheme is unlikely to be popular. This is sad because the OLS is generally accepted as being far more efficient than the Home Office.

What about the other changes? The ability for employers to self-certify staff who need to transfer to the UK seems, at face value, a very attractive way of cutting red tape. However, multinational companies only need to submit a minimal amount of information for transfers under the current system.

Certainly, no supporting documentation is generally required. Self certification could reduce the normal waiting time for permits, but with the OLS's target processing time of one week for most applications this will be of little benefit.

Season tickets are another possible red herring: work permits can already be obtained for employees who spend only part of their time in the UK.

Overseas students have always been able to undertake Training and Work Experience Scheme (TWES) work permit employment for training or work experience without leaving the UK. But allowing employees on TWES permits to switch to normal employment would make a real difference.

Employers invest a great deal of time and resources training employees under TWES permits, but the terms of this scheme require the employee to return abroad upon completion of their training.

Sector analysis to identify skill shortages is a common sense measure, but it rubs salt in the wounds of employers who have been highlighting the recruitment difficulties faced by the IT sector for several years. It has taken the Government nearly a whole term in office to acknowledge the problem.

The Government is considering changes that could help redeem its record. The revision of the skills criteria for permits offers the perfect opportunity to review the inflexible and out of date requirement for overseas workers to have a bachelor's degree, and two years of post-graduate experience. In rapidly developing sectors such as IT, where the technology is young and the skills base still maturing, these formal requirements act as a bar to attracting the best talent to the UK.

The proposal to grant visas to individuals of outstanding ability will be useful if they can switch to employment without leaving the UK. However, the Government could show it is really committed to meeting the needs of business by allowing visitors to the UK to transfer to work permit employment. A long lead-in time before an international assignment is a luxury that most companies can ill-afford; they need to transfer the employee straightaway.

Currently, if the person enters as a visitor they must leave and re-enter the UK if they want to obtain a work permit. Some overseas nationals, such as those from India or China, must obtain a separate visa to travel to the UK after approval of their work permit. Unnecessary and expensive bureaucratic burdens of this type need to be reviewed.

Employers, anxious to meet their key human resource requirements, will find some of the changes useful. However, although the Government recognises the economic benefit of a flexible work permit system, it still has a long way to go before bureaucracy is truly under retreat.

Tony Haque is a solicitor in the business immigration group at Baker & McKenzie

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