Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes, who previously headed up the digital agenda within the Cabinet Office before being moved over to the Home Office in a recent reshuffle, has effectively dismissed calls to raise the cap on the amount of Tier 2 visas that can be issued each year.
The Minister’s comments come as the technology community is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit the skills that it needs, which has been amplified by the decision to leave the European Union. Prominent voices in the tech community have called for an immediate increase in the amount of Tier 2 visas that can be issued.
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.
It was recently revealed that Britain, for the first time in seven years, hit its cap for issuing Tier 2 visas for a third month in a row in December, sparking concerns that this could be a long-term trend.
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.
Answering questions in the House of Commons, Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes effectively dismissed calls to raise the cap, stating that the process was “under review”. Most of her comments focused on the NHS, stating that nurses are exempt from the cap, but ignored the fact that other sectors of the economy are desperate for skills.
Nokes repeatedly said that the aim of the cap was to encourage employment from within the UK. However, technology businesses have repeatedly stated that those skills don’t currently exist – or at least very hard to find – within the UK. Nokes said:
The cap on tier 2 visas was set in 2011 following advice from the Migration Advisory Committee. It enables the Government to control migration and encourages employers to look first to the domestic workforce before recruiting from overseas. The Government are clear that carefully controlled economic migration benefits the economy, but we remain committed to reducing migration and protecting the jobs of British workers. We keep all immigration routes under review to ensure that the system serves the national interest.
Nurses are on the shortage occupation list, meaning that no nurse is turned away. The important thing is that we keep the matter under review and that we understand the situation through our work with the Migration Advisory Committee, which is looking at the pattern of EU work routes in this country, so that we come forward with an immigration policy that reflects the needs of our economy.
We are very clear that businesses should look first to employ people from within the UK, and we remain committed to reducing migration to sustainable levels. Interestingly, businesses have told us that our system compares well with our global competitors and that businesses like its speed and certainty.
Stuart C. McDonald MP, the SNP’s spokesperson on Immigration, Asylum and Border Control, rebuke Nokes’ comments and said that the government’s approach isn’t working. McDonald said:
The Minister suggests that the tier 2 cap situation is under review. With respect, that is not good enough. Failed applicants in the past three months may have no option but to apply again in the months ahead, making it ever more competitive for tier 2 certificates of sponsorship, which will make the problem much worse. Surely, if there is some sort of review, or if we have to wait for the Migration Advisory Committee, it makes sense to lift the cap in the meantime.
Prominent figures within the technology community recently gave evidence to a House of Lords EU Internal Market Sub-Committee, urging urgent action on the Tier 2 visa system.
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, said 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.
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, 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 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.
This is very frustrating. The government says that it is listening to the needs of business. And yet, something that could prove to be a quick fix for certain sectors of the economy, is being ignored. Likely because of the desire to avoid anti-immigration headlines in the right-wing press. In the meantime, it’s the businesses and the economy that suffers.
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