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Vinous Ali

Head of policy, TechUK

Attracting entrepreneurs is always good – but let’s not forget the needs of the thriving tech sector already here

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister made a slew of announcements to mark London Tech Week, including a replacement for the existing Graduate Entrepreneur route. This will allow both graduates and non-graduates who want to start a business in the UK to apply for the snappily-titled “start-up” visa. TechUK is fully aligned with the Government’s ambition to make the UK the best place to start a digital business and this clearly fits that agenda. So, this is very welcome. However, continuing to concentrate solely on entrepreneurs risks ignoring a bigger problem. Entrepreneurs need to be able to access world class talent to drive their businesses, and that means that they sometimes need to source that talent from around the world. That is becoming a lot harder.

Thanks to an FOI from CaSE, we know that 1,200 tech workers with job offers in the UK were denied entry due to the arbitrary Tier 2 cap between December 2017 and March 2018 alone. In these uncertain times the UK cannot afford to turn away skilled workers who will make our economy stronger, create more jobs for UK workers and contribute in many other ways to our culture and communities.

In 2011, the then Home Secretary Theresa May introduced an annual limit for Tier 2 visas – the main route used by employers to fill skilled job roles where they can’t find the talent domestically. This wasn’t an issue to begin with – the cap was not hit, meaning businesses could bring in the skilled talent they needed to continue to flourish. That all changed in December 2017. Every month since the end of last year the UK has hit the arbitrary Tier 2 cap.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. It could be due to Brexit, and the uncertainty it brings, fewer European Economic Area (EEA) nationals are choosing to come to the UK, forcing companies to look to third countries. We could also be feeling the effects of the closure of the Tier 2 Intra Company Skills Transfer and Short Term visa categories that could be shifting employers to look at the Tier 2 (General) route. Regardless of the reasons, the effect is the same – the UK’s tech sector is being deprived of the skilled talent it needs to remain world leading in this field.

And it is not just the tech sector that is suffering. The same FOI revealed that between December 2017 and March 2018 the Government rejected over 6,000 applications, including engineers, doctors and teachers. In other words, professionals whose work is crucial to the UK were rejected.

It is clear that Tier 2 is simply no longer fit for purpose in a post-Brexit landscape where a Global Britain will be the key to our continued success and prosperity. Arbitrary caps driven by political considerations not economic need set Britain up to fail. We hope the new Home Secretary will take the opportunity an Immigration White Paper presents to radically rethink our migration system. Simply put, we need to have a system that allows those with the skills and talent Britain needs in. We should be welcoming these individuals with open arms – they can contribute to our economy and help train up the future workforce whether in our schools, universities or on the job – yet, at the moment, we are throwing up barriers in their way.

techUK will be working with Government to suggest how we can deliver this system whilst maintaining public confidence and trust. But this will take time. In the short-term it looks like consistent pressure to remove NHS workers from the Tier 2 cap has paid off.

This change has wider implications, it is clear that the Government has responded to a sweet spot being hit – where the needs of the economy and clamouring from employers has met with public support, allowing for a more open and flexible debate on our migration system to happen and change to be effected.

The Home Secretary’s announcement of start-up visas is very welcome, but we need to make sure that when they get to Britain and set up their business, these entrepreneurs can also access the talent they need to grow it. Otherwise we may find they do not come.

Vinous Ali is head of policy at TechUK