Law: How to play by the rules

What does a Swiss footballer have in common with a Bulgarian banker? They both need permits to work in Britain. Ian Hunter on what it takes to get one
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The Independent Online
How easy is it for a foreigner to work in Britain? The recent difficulties in obtaining work permits from the Department of Education and Employment experienced by Marc Hottiger, Everton's Swiss international, and Ilie Dumitrescu, West Ham United's Romanian international, serve as a reminder that not everyone has the right to work in the United Kingdom.

Nationals from the European Economic Area (EEA), which includes all countries in the European Union together with Norway, Finland and Iceland, are allowed to work in the UK without any restrictions on their employment. The same rule normally applies to non-EEA workers who are married to EEA citizens. A non-EEA husband or wife will be able to work even if his or her husband or wife does not.

Applications for work permits should be made by the workers' prospective employer. There are a number of categories of permission available, including training and work experience permits. The most popular is the full work permit. In broad terms, the employer must be able to satisfy the Overseas Labour Section of the Department of Education and Employment that there is no other employee in either the United Kingdom or the rest of the EEA who is capable of doing the particular job. The purpose of the work-permit scheme is to, where possible, safeguard the resident labour market.

It is necessary for any post to be advertised in the UK and the remainder of the EEA to show there is no worker within this area capable of filling the position. This requirement can be waived where the position is very specialised. These include senior board appointments, posts that are essential to attracting jobs and capital to the UK and occupations that are acknowledged by the industry to be in short supply nationally.

Football managers often seek to argue that the footballer they are seeking to recruit has very specialist skills which are not available in the domestic market. However, in a recent statement, the Education and Employment Minister indicated that a review was under way. Cheryl Gillan, who has special responsibilities for work permits, said: "I have decided to review, with the football bodies, the criteria for transfer of work permits between clubs. The review will take into account the effect of these criteria on the wider development of the sport. It is important that football continues to benefit from the contribution of top class international footballers playing for British clubs whilst safeguarding opportunities for development of British players."

The Overseas Section of the Department of Education and Employment last year received 56,752 applications and granted 42,191. It remains to be seen whether the review of footballer applications will lead to a widescale review.

Work permits are normally granted for fixed periods of time. The Overseas Labour Section is normally reluctant to grant a work permit for more than four years. The reason for this reluctance is that once employees have worked for four years in the UK, they obtain the right to settle.

A work-permit application takes approximately eight weeks to be processed from the date on which it has been submitted. The applicant should remain outside the UK throughout the application period. The application will be treated as lapsed if the applicant is found to have been working in the UK during this period. Any future application may also be prejudiced as the employee will be deemed to be in breach of immigration rules.

The work permit granted is restricted to a particular post with a particular employer. An employee who for any reason changes job must obtain a new permit. A work-permit holder's husband or wife and dependant children will be allowed to live and work in the UK provided that he or she can show that they will be able to live without reliance on state benefits. These dependants should seek immigration clearance the UK from the relevant British high commission or consulate before arriving in the country.

The work-permit holder can, once he or she has been granted a work permit, leave and enter the UK at will. However, they should ensure that they spend a sufficient amount of time in the country to fulfil the duties for which the work permit was granted.

However, not every employee requires a work permit. A business that has no office or representative already in the UK may be able to apply for entry clearance as that business's sole reprepresentative. Sole representatives are normally allowed to remain in the UK for an initial four-year period. At the end of that period, they may either apply for settlement in the UK or an extension, whichever is appropriate.

Representatives can normally be joined by their husband or wife. The sole representative must have extensive powers to make decisions while in the UK and must be actively involved in promoting the business that be or she represents.

Other categories such as journalists, ministers and domestic servants are also entitled to come to the UK free of work-permit restrictions, subject to compliance with certain requirements.

While European levels of unemployment remain high, it is unlikely that coming to work in the United Kingdom will become any easier for those outside the EEA.