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Theresa May doubles the number of visas for tech workers, but industry warns it’s not enough

Theresa May is doubling the number of visas available to high-skilled workers to 2,000 per year, in a bid to protect the tech sector after Brexit.

The pledge forms part of a series of measures to address the Brexit skills gap and ensure Britain remains “open for business” once it leaves the EU.

“Our digital tech sector is one of the UK’s fastest-growing industries, and is supporting talent, boosting productivity, and creating hundreds of thousands of good, high-skilled jobs up and down the country,” the prime minister said.

“It is absolutely right that this dynamic sector, which makes such an immense contribution to our economic life and to our society, has the full backing of government.”

May has also unveiled a £21m investment in expanding Tech City UK into a nationwide network called Tech Nation, and a £20m fund for helping public services embrace new technology such as AI.

Quizzed about whether the measures would go far enough to protect the sector after Brexit, culture secretary Karen Bradley told Radio 4’s Today Programme: “What we’re doing today is another step in our work on tech, demonstrating to the industry that we’re listening to them, that we’re walking with them.”

But while Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, welcomed the move to increase the number of tier one visas available to tech founders looking to start up in the UK, he warned that the government must take further steps to attract tech workers if it is to address the looming skills gap.

The big issue isn’t this top talent, this tier one talent,” he told NS Tech. “I’m really concerned about tier two level and we haven’t heard anything yet about any overhaul to the immigration system.”

Shaw said that the number of tier two visas, which are available to software engineers, data scientists, and product managers, must be increased substantially.

“The number of people coming from the EU to the UK for these jobs is dropping. They don’t want to go into a market in which there is uncertainty around immigration policy. They don’t want to move their partners, their families to a country that still hasn’t resolved its immigration system.

“So this is a step in the right direction; it’s good to double the number, but we have to go far broader not only with tier one but also with tier two.”

Norman Lamb, the chair of the House of Commons’ science and tech select committee, shared Shaw’s concerns about the pledge.

“I would argue that it doesn’t really address the national need and the scale of the challenge that we face. At the same time as they’re announcing quite small measures we’re facing significant threats,” he told NS Tech.

“You can double the number of those tier one visas, but at the same time if the numbers of people coming in from the EU goes into decline, then we could find ourselves in a more difficult position.”