UK: Immigration law changes likely to affect the Life Sciences sector

16 October 2008

Ian Hunter, Jonathan Goldsworthy

Life sciences companies are becoming increasingly international as they compete to bring new ideas, intellectual capital and technology to market. As a result, more and more companies have come to rely on a readily available turnover of foreign workers to maintain a competitive edge.

As you may be aware, key changes to the UK's immigration system are being rolled-out during the course of 2008 which will have a dramatic impact on businesses' ability to recruit and transfer non-European Economic Area nationals into the UK. The UK Government is currently in the process of implementing its Points-Based System ("PBS") which will effectively replace all current immigration schemes.

A key change is that the work permit arrangements are scheduled to be replaced by Tier 2 of the PBS in autumn this year. Instead of applying for work permit certificates, UK companies will issue Certificates of Sponsorship to prospective employees. Before doing so, however, companies must first register with the UK Border Agency ("UKBA") and obtain a sponsorship licence. In addition to completing the online application, this will involve providing the UKBA with various original supporting documentation, selecting key personnel from within the sponsoring organisation and demonstrating that the business has effective HR systems in place to manage its migrant workforce. As the UKBA is likely to visit prospective sponsors before issuing a licence, companies are advised to carry out an audit of personnel files before starting the application process to ensure that all details of work permit holders are up-to-date and that the UKBA has been notified of any significant changes since individuals started employment.

Given the historic importance of skilled migrant workers, a failure to get to grips with the PBS is likely to result in serious delays to the recruitment of key personnel and project timetables. In particular, it should be noted that in anticipation of the expected "bottleneck" of applications as we approach the Tier 2 implementation date (currently scheduled for November 2008), those companies that do not attend to their sponsorship applications over the summer months risk loosing access to the valuable pool of global talent.

The PBS is part of the UK's wider immigration strategy and comes at a time when the Government is also cracking down on companies that employ illegal workers. Indeed, under the new system of penalties that came into force on 29 February 2008, companies that employ individuals without full permission to work in the UK will now face fines of up to £10,000 for each unauthorised worker and any business which knowingly employs individuals without full permission may be prosecuted for a criminal offence would potentially face an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment.

As immigration changes will affect foreign employees at all levels, companies should take steps now to ensure that they are ready for the PBS or risk bad publicity, fines and losing the ability to recruit key individuals.