Britain has hit its cap for issuing Tier 2 skilled working visas for the third month in a row, following growing concerns from the technology community that the visa system needs to be urgently reformed in a post-Brexit world.
The cap was reached for the first time in seven years in December. It wasn’t certain whether or not this was an anomaly; but the cap being reached for a further two consecutive months will likely spark concerns that this is a long-term trend.
The Tier 2 visa enables UK employers to employ skilled workers from outside of the European Economic Area and there is an annual limit of 20,700 visas that can be issued each year. There is mounting evidence that EU workers are either leaving the UK, or are not coming to the UK to work in the numbers that they used to since the Brexit vote, making it harder for employers to fill skilled vacancies.
Given the assumption that freedom of movement and citizen rights for EU workers will end after we leave the European Union (or at least post any sort of transition period after March 2019) there is mounting concern that the skilled visa system needs to be reformed as soon as possible.
The government has hinted at a digital and frictionless immigration system post-Brexit, but there have been delays to the publication of its Immigration white paper, which should provide more details.
Although much of the public rhetoric has focused on the skills crisis in areas such as the NHS, the technology and digital industry has also shared its frustrations, citing examples of it becoming harder to get access to the skills it needs.
Prominent voices in the technology community just last week urged the government to rethink the Tier 2 visa system as a matter of urgency.
For example, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, a a private sector led coalition of over 5,700 expert individuals from the tech sector and broader community, told a House of Lords EU Internal Market Sub-Committee that one of the things that the government can do right now is improve foreign workers’ access to visas and skilling up the nation in terms of digital skills.
Shaw told the Committee:
Things on my wish list that could be addressed now – we need to immediately look at the Tier-2 cap. 20,700 Tier-2 visas is simply not enough. I think we can do things like third party sponsorship of Tier-2 visas, so that we ensure that Tier-2 level is getting the right inflow of talent.
The second part is digital skills. How do we ensure that younger and older people are getting up-skilled, retrained, re-skilled, whatever you want to call it. From where I sit, there’s going to be a significant amount of job losses in low skilled areas. I use high street retail as an example. We are going to see hundreds of thousands of jobs disappear in the coming years.
Shaw also noted, that during his travels around the world, he’s noticed that some of the talent that was planning to come to the UK to work, is “now thinking twice”. He said:
Because of what I’d describe as the soft power message, what is coming out of the UK in terms of Brexit. We have to project a message about the openness we have here, that we really want to create a global Britain. We are going to have to change that message, because I’m worried and I’ve already seen people not wanting to come here because of that message.
If we don’t fill these jobs, these businesses will struggle. The start-ups won’t become scale ups, the scale ups won’t become midsize companies, we will have fewer larger organisations. We need to solve this problem now.
Antony Walker, deputy-CEO of technology trade association, techUK, also highlighted to the committee that non-UK talent plays a “really important and significant role” in the digital sector. He said that talent currently employed in the sector from the EU is about 7-8%, but added that the net contribution has significantly increase in recent years as the sector has grown. Walker added that these are “highly skilled and talented people”, where 78% are educated to degree level, earning between £45,000 and £80,000. Walker called on the government to rethink the Tier 2 visa system. He said:
It’s very, very important. These people play an important role. The sector is growing, so it needs more skills. And the economy is digitising, so the economy as a whole needs more digital skills. So there’s an increasing scarcity and the domestic talent pipeline can’t meet that demand.
We are concerned we don’t want to see a cliff edge when the UK leaves the EU, so in the transition period we would like a situation where citizens coming into the UK would have the same rights to claim settled status through that transition period. And then in time we have to develop a new migration system. And what we are absolutely clear about is that the existing Tier-2 system is not fit for purpose and is not able to cope with the change of status, in terms of losing free movement.
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