Home Office finally agrees scale-up visa licenses 3 months after very slow start

Scale-up visas slow to take off

The first four scale-up visa licences have been approved by the Home Office three months after the scheme began, prompting lawyers to question the slow take up.

Macademia, a children’s educational TV and games producer based in Arkley, north London, was the first to be approved after it applied for the licence to bring an Argentinian freelancer to the UK and into a full-time role.

The other three companies were Intrepid, a London-based software consultancy; Pentific, which develops property management software and is also based in London; and Porter Bathroom, which makes luxury vanity units and baths in Kesh, Northern Ireland.

Macademia, which operates TV channels and streaming apps called Da Vinci and Azoomee, meets the minimum 20 per cent a year sales or employment growth criterion set by the Home Office. It also had more than ten staff three years ago, another criterion, and now employs a hundred in the UK, Germany and Istanbul. It forecasts that revenues will rise 60 per cent in the year to next March.

Estelle Lloyd, co-founder and chief operating officer, said, however, that the reason for applying for the licence had now changed. “We have been working with someone who is based in Argentina as a freelancer and that person wanted to relocate to the UK. We considered bringing him over as a full-time employee but his plans and our plans have now changed.”

She said she heard about the new visa via Sherry Coutu, a serial entrepreneur, who had brought it up in a group chat. “I looked into it and saw it was a more streamlined process,” she said.

Once they had secured a scale-up certificate of sponsorship they submitted the details into the visa portal. She said the information was initially rejected and, after failing to raise anyone at the Home Office, they applied for a second licence. This time the portal accepted it. The reapplication added a couple of weeks’ delay but Lloyd said that overall the experience had been “positive”.

Lawyers questioned why so few businesses had applied for sponsor licences given that the visa scheme aimed to help growing companies to gain access to skilled people from around the world. It is designed to appeal to companies that have not used the visa system before, although existing sponsors of highly skilled foreign workers can also make use of it.

The fees charged are lower than existing skilled worker visas and it offers the workers more flexibility, only requiring them to work for the sponsoring employer for six months. Companies do have to be VAT registered for at least 37 months to apply, ruling out some fast-growth start-ups.

Audrey Elliott, an employment and immigration partner at the law firm Eversheds Sutherland, pointed to figures from The Scaleup Institute that suggest that there were 34,000 companies that met the visa route’s criteria and could apply. “Given the number of scale-ups and the clear need for overseas workers it’s surprising there are not more,” she said. “There may be a time lag [in applications] but if you were really desperate for people you would move quickly. I don’t know what the barrier is. It may be that people are simply not aware of it.”

Unlike with other skilled-worker visas, employers sponsoring people through the scale-up visa route are not able to pay to fast track their applications. This could explain the slow uptake as Elliott said that the Home Office was taking up to three months to process visa applications. It is understood that the first four scale-up sponsor visa licences were processed in less than nine weeks.

The Home Office confirmed that it had granted “a number of licences” under the scheme. “The public rightly expects us to control immigration and ensure it works in the UK’s best interests by filling skills gaps and growing the economy,” a spokesman said. “Through this route we will support more high-growth companies here in the UK to attract exceptional talent.”

The department is understood to be in the process of automating its visa application systems, which will help to accelerate the approval process.