Inflexible Visa rules “causing waves” for Offshore Wind sector

Maria Gravelle (Pinsent Masons)

STRICT new immigration requirements are deterring vital skilled workers and threatening major disruption for UK offshore wind projects, a leading lawyer has warned.

According to Maria Gravelle, an immigration specialist at Pinsent Masons, axing the Offshore Wind Worker Concession (OWWC) has left companies facing “extremely complex” rules ill-suited to the sector’s needs.

The OWWC previously allowed foreign national workers to enter the UK for the purpose of joining a vessel engaged in the construction and maintenance of wind farms within UK territorial waters.

With the majority of offshore crews made up of non-British and Irish nationals, Gravelle cautions that recruiting suitable staff has become extremely difficult since the concession ended in April 2023.

Despite lobbying by industry bodies which predicted massive disruption to the sector, the Home Office is now requiring visas for any non-UK/Irish citizens working within 12 nautical miles of the shoreline.

But Gravelle explains the visa system is predicated toward people who work onshore Monday to Friday 9-5 – not the rotational working patterns commonly found in the offshore sector.

She said: “The knock-on effects are significant and were predictable. Visas themselves can be extremely costly and the extra red tape and administrative burden on employers is impacting on project budgets, skewing tenders for new developments and in some cases could even delay work scopes. 

“Offshore workers coming into UK waters have an extensive range of certifiable skills and there is a shortage of the required certifications in the UK job market. These workers pose a low risk to UK immigration control as, for tax purposes, they do not want to be based in the UK long-term.”

Gravelle reveals that employers’ sponsoring costs can run into “thousands of pounds per person” in visa fees and other charges for workers – who may only need to enter the UK for a few weeks a year on a specific project.

There is also a lack of clarity on which employer or contractor in the supply chain should take responsibility for sponsorship and visa clearance when crews are contracted externally.

With offshore wind key to UK decarbonisation and net-zero goals, she insists tailored immigration arrangements are urgently required to resolve the recruitment bottleneck.

One solution would be to introduce a sector-specific immigration route, similar to OWWC but more permanent. This has been done before in catering for specific groups in “shortage” industries, such as poultry workers or HGV drivers.

She added: “Without an appropriate fix, the UK will become increasingly undesirable for skilled offshore workers and their employers.”

  • Maria Gravelle, shipping employment law colleague Sarah Munro, and barrister and arbitrator James Turner, KC, a leading expert on energy and shipping, will speak at Pinsent Masons’ shipping seminar for sector leaders in Aberdeen on 12 October.

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