For the last seven years, the UK government has made it a key priority to reduce the UK’s net migration figure.  Measures to that end have included making the ability to employ a non-EEA national exceptionally expensive (currently, for a five year visa, the figure stands at in excess of £7,000 purely for visa fees and “surcharges”) and restricting the ability to rent a property or open a bank account without whipping out your visa.  However, a recent article in the Guardian newspaper has highlighted a furore in the most unlikely of bodies, the England and Wales Cricket Board.

The point of contention is recently updated government guidance on how Immigration Officers should define “amateur sportspeople” and “professional sportspeople”, in particular sports visitors.

By way of context, the vast majority of visitors coming to the UK are limited to staying for up to six months and their activities here limited to those in the UK Immigration Rules. To help decipher these Rules, the government issues accompanying “guidance” to Immigration Officers.  The guidance can only expand on the Rules and cannot impose more restrictive terms than the Rules themselves.

Historically, amateur sportspeople were able to enter the UK as sports visitors for up to six months to gain experience with an amateur team in the UK providing they received no payment for this.  The government defined (and still defines) an “amateur” as:

“A person who engages in a sport (or creative activity) solely for personal enjoyment and who is not seeking to derive a living from the activity”

In April 2015 the government completely revamped the visitor Rules and introduced a full Appendix to consolidate and clarify visitor related activities.  The defined activities for sports visitors remained that a sportsperson could join an amateur team to gain experience in a particular sport. Curiously, at the time of issuing this new Appendix, the language in the Immigration Rules removed the obligation for the visiting sportsperson to be classified as an “amateur” providing he was joining an “amateur” team to gain experience in a particular sport. One can only assume this was a drafting error as the accompanying guidance did state that the Immigration Officer must assess whether the person was being employed as a professional sportsperson or not for the amateur team.  Further, in August 2015, the Immigration Rules were updated to reflect that sports visitors must themselves be amateurs, joining an amateur team.

In June 2017, the government issued revised guidance on what an Immigration Officer should take into consideration when assessing amateur sports visitors.  The new guidance states:

“Amateur sportspersons are able to join an amateur team or club to gain experience in a particular sport, provided they are an amateur in that sport. You must consider whether the individual is actually an amateur or not, as well as the amateur status of the team/ club.”

It then goes further to state, in rather fractured English, that a professional sportsperson is:

“…someone, whether paid or unpaid, who:

  • is providing services as a sportsperson, playing or coaching in any capacity, at a professional or semi-professional level of sport; or
  • being a person who currently derives, who has in the past derived or seeks in the future to derive, a living from playing or coaching, is providing services as a sportsperson or coach at any level of sport, unless they are doing as an “Amateur”

…Professional sportspeople should include:

  • players who have played for professional or semi-professional clubs at junior levels, which may include under 17s and under 19s teams, whether they were paid or not
  • coaches of junior teams of professional or semi-professional clubs, whether they were paid or not
  • former professional sportspeople who have formally reverted to amateur status according to the rules of their sport
  • players who have played representative sport for their state, country or territory, whether they were paid or not

The England and Wales Cricket Board feels that this guidance may affect the ability of young promising overseas players to come and experience playing for a domestic UK amateur club. It feels, quite rightly, this is perhaps unnecessarily restrictive on what is essentially a recreational sport.

The real puzzle though is why the UK government has chosen to put such restrictive terms on sports visitors.  Are overseas cricket players (or any other visitors coming to experience British sport for a short period), coming for a couple of months over the summer, really displacing British cricket enthusiasts? As visitors, they cannot be paid so they are not profiting from this visit.  As visitors, they are also not entitled to access to the NHS; therefore any cricket-related injury would need private medical cover. If anything, more cricket players in the country increases people’s knowledge of the sport and keenness to “get involved”.  In a Britain divided by Brexit, it is also critical for all British nationals, whether young or old, to socialise with different nationalities and cultures in order to have a better understanding of the wider world and build a tolerant society.  Sport is one of the few areas that actually breaks down barriers, speaking the common language of sport as opposed to a common linguistic barrier, and potentially holds the key to a cohesive (and healthier!) society.