Ben Sheldrick is managing partner and head of business immigration at Magrath Sheldrick LLP, one of the UK’s leading immigration practices. He is recognised as a top-tier UK immigration expert by the legal community and is noted by the major legal directories for his expertise in immigration law. He is also managing director of Magrath Sheldrick (Global) Pte. Limited in Singapore.
What do you enjoy most about your role as an immigration specialist?
As a policy topic, immigration has been central to the UK’s national conversation for many years. Often in a neuralgic, divisive way – but always at the forefront of thinking about the direction of travel the country wishes to take. Of course, this reached its natural peak at the time of the 2016 referendum. The 2016 result led the country in a whole new direction, with immigration policy, again, a central issue. I find it fascinating to be working in an area that is so relevant to the politics and society of our time.
What have been the biggest challenges for corporate immigration practitioners during the extraordinary year of 2020?
The challenges have been myriad. Firstly, in relation to managing a practice within the context of a sudden shift to home working and, more importantly, in helping our clients deal with the complexities of a world in administrative lockdown. Everything changed over the course of a few days in March. The biggest challenges related to the administration of the global immigration system, with consulates closed, flight schedules abandoned and whole countries placed in lockdown. It has been interesting, to say the least.
Cases that in the past may have been straightforward and transactional have become very difficult to manage from a logistics perspective. Our teams have coped admirably in very difficult circumstances.
In addition to the pandemic, we are reaching the end of the post-Brexit transition phase – so there is lots of work to be done in preparing clients for the new immigration framework due to be launched in the UK on 1 January 2021. It is a fascinating time to be working in this field.
To what extent will the coronavirus pandemic have a long-term impact on global mobility programmes and the corporate culture of international assignments?
It is difficult to know what the long-term impact will be. The pandemic will not reverse the globalisation that has developed over the course of the past 20 years or more. People will still want to travel, learn and gain experience of other cultures, and develop their business interests overseas. It is not possible to replicate an assignment experience on Zoom or Teams. Moreover, we cannot simply unpick the international web of businesses under common ownership that are such a feature of modern commerce.
Nonetheless, the pandemic is far from over and global mobility will certainly suffer for the next year or so. I do not, however, predict a major cultural reverse on a long-term basis. There has certainly been a revolution in 2020 in respect of online meetings and working from home arrangements – they are irreversible trends now. But it will always be in the spirit of human endeavour, especially within the context of business, to travel and engage in person on the ground – I don’t see that changing.
Do you believe that companies are ready for the changes to immigration compliance that the final Brexit stage will bring?
Our clients understand the challenges of compliance risk and employer sponsorship, but I am not sure the corporates are necessarily ready for the scale of engagement that the new legal order will impose. The resident labour market, and the available pool of settled workers, will shrink significantly on 1 January 2021. This poses challenges for recruiters, HR managers and global mobility specialists. We are all used to the Legal Right to Work (LRTW) checking requirements but not necessarily sponsor management record keeping and reporting on such a large scale. Bringing a block the size of the EU within the ambit of a new LRTW legal order is a seismic change. Until it occurs, I don’t think any of us are entirely sure how it will pan out.
Costs will be a major consideration – especially given the economic freefall the pandemic has caused globally. UK immigration costs and levies have risen exponentially over the last decade, and employers have borne the impact of these rises. The immigration budget for large businesses will have to increase unless there is a sufficient supply of skill and labour from within the new resident labour market, which seems unlikely.
Is the UK’s new Points-Based System fit for purpose as the country prepares to leave the single market?
The Skilled Worker route brings a lot of positives for business. Even though the overarching narrative is about “taking back control” and reducing migration numbers from outside the new (Common Travel Area) resident labour market, the scheme is in fact remarkably liberal. The skills threshold is lower (RQF3), and the salary threshold is flexible given the ability to “trade” points with other eligibility criteria. The fact that there will be no caps, quotas or Restricted Certificates of Sponsorship is a plus. Again, this is a major shift of policy from the May government. Prime Minister Johnson, despite the Brexit rhetoric, is relaxed about immigration as a concept. In that sense I think he is less “conservative” than his predecessor.
The focus on sponsorship of skilled workers does leave gaps in other areas. I would like to see a supply-side route being re-introduced of the type we have seen before in HSMP and Tier 1 (General). This will help employers as there will be a supply of talent that does not come with an excessive compliance burden. The country needs to be willing to accommodate skills and innovation from overseas without imposing too many hurdles and barriers. Brexit, regardless of one’s views of its merits or demerits, must now be used as an opportunity to operate globally and not retrench into nationalism and autonomy.
Apart from Brexit, what are the main horizon issues for corporate immigration practitioners and their clients?
There will have to be a review of the routes of entry to the UK for entrepreneurs and innovators. The “Start-Up” and “Innovator” programmes have not gained a lot of traction, and the economy is losing some good people as a result. The logic behind the schemes, that external endorsing bodies with relevant specialist commercial experience are better placed than civil servants to assess innovation and entrepreneurial attributes, is rational. In practice, these routes are just too difficult to navigate. A lot of the endorsing bodies are only interested in a small cadre of businesses that they believe will generate a return on venture capital. The schemes are not fit for purpose and the country is losing out on investment as a result.
You also have an office in Singapore: what is the landscape like for corporate immigration practitioners and their clients in Asia-Pacific?
We have seen significant growth in our Singapore and Asia-Pacific operation this year, despite the pandemic. This is because immigration work in Asia is becoming more complex and strategic – less transactional than may have been the case in the past. The complexities of the pandemic have resulted in a need for more strategic and logistical advice. New clients have been coming to us to gain a bespoke, advisory-led service. That trend will carry on for the foreseeable future.
What advice would you give to new practitioners hoping to be in the position you are now?
It is a really good time to think about becoming a specialist business and investment immigration practitioner. These issues are becoming more and more complex all over the world. The sector needs upcoming talent. Go for it.
Ben Sheldrick is distinguished by peers for his “fine commercial mind” and by clients as a “real joy to work with”.
Ben Sheldrick is managing partner and head of business immigration at Magrath Sheldrick LLP Solicitors. He is also a director of Magrath Global (Singapore), which caters to an extensive corporate client base in the Asia Pacific region.
For many years, the legal community has recognised Ben as a leading UK immigration expert. He is ranked for his expertise in immigration law by the main professional directories, The Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners. He also appears in Legal Experts (published by Legal Business) and he is rated by Global Law Experts.
Ben has acted as immigration counsel to many household-name multinational companies. In particular, he has worked for a number of major City institutions operating within the financial services sector in London. He has spoken on numerous occasions to the International Mobility Banking Roundtable and other leading professional bodies.
He has experience in strategic immigration planning for large organisations and he assists international assignment departments and human resource managers in developing compliance and Legal Right to Work (LRTW) policies. This work has become increasingly important given the emphasis on devolved responsibility within current UK Tier 2 sponsorship policy.
Ben contributed to the development of the Points Based System (PBS) by organising and chairing stakeholder meetings with officials from UK Visas and Immigration as well as directors of PBS policy. He hosts seminars annually with representatives of UKVI and stakeholders from the business community to discuss developments in Immigration Law as they impact upon business and high net worth individuals and entrepreneurs.
He is an active member of the International Bar Association (IBA) immigration committee and he has spoken at a number of their conferences, both in the UK and around the world. Magrath Sheldrick LLP is one of the main sponsors of the biennial IBA Immigration Conference held in London.
Ben is co-editor of The Corporate Immigration Review, an annual publication that identifies trends in global immigration law issues attracting contributions from leading immigration and nationality practitioners around the world.
Ben and his team work closely with British American Business (BAB) the transatlantic business organisation dedicated to helping companies connect and build their business on both sides of the Atlantic. Magrath Sheldrick LLP hosts two business immigration conferences with BAB every year where they attract well known thinkers and policy stakeholders in the immigration field. Past speakers have included the Minister of State for Immigration, the Chairman of Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee and the Consul General of the US Embassy in London. Ben is a member of the BAB Policy Group and has helped draft their policy manifesto.
He has been closely involved with the Immigration Law Practitioner Association (ILPA) for many years and he has taught on a number of their training courses. He is also an associate member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and he attends the AILA global immigration forum annually.
Ben chairs an annual conference with the White Paper Conference Company on client-focused solutions for business immigration lawyers.
Ben is particularly interested in the development of immigration policy and the way successive UK governments have approached the conflict between the need to attract talent and investment from overseas and the political difficulties resulting from a popular perception of the negative impact of mass migration and weak immigration controls.
Ben and his team act as technical immigration partners to Expat-Academy, a leading industry forum for global mobility professionals. This year he will present a series of essential briefings on immigration law and his team will host a number of training sessions on global mobility issues for multinational companies.
Ben is recognised as a Thought Leader on Brexit by Who's Who Legal and speaks regularly to international businesses and other stakeholders on post-Brexit immigration policy.
Ben is a member of the International Association of Lawyers and the Investment Migration Council.
He also has a first-class degree in French literature from London University.