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Russ Shaw

Founder, Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates

If ministers want UK tech to thrive after Brexit, they must adopt a more flexible visa system

Last week at the European Union Internal Market Sub-Committee meeting on Brexit and trade in Digital Service, I voiced the glaring need for clarity and certainty in the coming round of Brexit negotiations on behalf of the UK tech community.

The hearings are an important opportunity for the private sector to outline the key points of concern and champion the need for government to engage with Britain’s growing tech sector. It is, after all, in urgent need of answers to a number of critical questions.

Government engagement

Prior to the first round of Brexit negotiations, engagement from the UK government with the tech community had been positive with ministers taking the initiative and posing important questions to the industry.

Positive feedback was received from various meetings with different government departments about the intentions for Brexit negotiations. It is vital that the concerns of the private sector remain at the top of officials’ agenda as they move through the various stages of the Brexit process.

However, since the conclusion of the first round of negotiations, engagement with the tech sector has failed to intensify and in key areas has started to drop off. Unfortunately, many of the most pressing areas of concern remain shrouded with uncertainty.

Private sector engagement is a critical part of the negotiation process and is key to creating a Brexit scenario which protects the UK’s growing tech sector. There is a clear gap between the biggest tech businesses in the UK with frequent access to members of government and those smaller businesses which are struggling to be heard.

It is essential that key government figures take a wider look at the community of British tech firms and promises to represent the interests of the diverse community of businesses which have helped to build the UK as a leading global tech hub.

Access to talent

Access to digital talent is one of the biggest concerns among UK tech businesses, and ensuring that the UK has a dynamic, world-class workforce is vital.

In the immediate future at least, homegrown talent with the necessary digital skills is in limited supply. Firms have to be able to recruit the talent they need from the vast pool of highly-skilled workers available overseas.

In order to support Britain as a leading global tech hub, home to some of the world’s most innovative businesses, we must adopt a flexible visa system suitable for the needs of the evolving technology sector.

Freedom of movement and post-Brexit visa policy must come to reflect the talent requirements of the UK tech sector and be at the center of negotiations. The UK not only needs access to digital workers, but to the leaders of industry as well. Coders, engineers and product designers make up some of the UK’s largest vacancies in the digital economy, but the tech community is also in great need of those that can manage the teams of digital workers and drive progress.

There is a growing need to review the currently rigid framework of Tier 2 visa allocations, with the priority being the elimination of red tape and long delays which hamper tech startups and discourage them from recruiting the brightest from overseas. There is a pressing requirement to increase the quantity of Tier 2 visas as well; the current allocation is insufficient to meet the growth in digital employment.

Transitioning from the EU

 As a recent report from the Greater London Authority on ‘Preparing for Brexit’ showed, a ‘cliff edge’ Brexit would be immensely disruptive to both the tech sector and the wider economy. If Britain did exit the European Union with a very limited transition period under the conditions of an unfavorable deal, many in the UK’s currently prosperous digital economy would be left extremely vulnerable.

While Brexit planning should be at the top of the agenda for businesses, many of the entrepreneurs and leaders of SMEs which have been driving economic growth do not have the resources to adequately prepare for Brexit and put the measures in place to help navigate a worst case scenario.

The government must move to reduce the punishing uncertainty surrounding the transition period and the final Brexit deal, and help to support businesses with the regulatory changes. We need to ensure greater transparency and increased offerings of support to businesses battling the disruptive forces of Brexit.

The private sector is united behind the effort to maintain London and the UK’s position as a leading tech hub. We have world-leading entrepreneurs, investors and innovators at the ready to get behind a negotiating process that supports the industry, and the government must now embrace their cooperative spirit to secure future prosperity and growth.

The collective task for both key government officials and the private sector is to ensure the final agreement gives tech companies the best possible chance for success.