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Digital minister: we must make it easier to hire foreign tech workers

The digital minister, Margot James, has said the government must make it easier for businesses to hire foreign tech workers.

Speaking to NS Tech last month, James (pictured) revealed she had been working with the Home Office to crack down on the number of tech specialists who had been denied visas after being offered jobs in the UK.

The minister’s remarks came ahead of new proposals unveiled today (2 September) to overhaul the UK’s immigration system after Brexit. Theresa May has reaffirmed her commitment to creating a system which will prioritise skilled migrants once the UK leaves the EU.

In an interview with NS Tech, James said: “Around 1,600 IT specialists and engineers have been offered jobs in the UK this year, but still haven’t got visas – we really do need to change that. I’m working with the Home Office to improve the ease with which technology companies can recruit from overseas when they have to. There’s no doubt that this is vitally needed.”

The number of visa rejections cited by James came from a freedom of information request submitted by campaigners earlier this year, and covers only the months from December to March. It’s likely the figure will have carried on rising until the end of July.

Since then, the monthly cap on the number of skilled workers coming to the UK on Tier 2 visas has not been hit, as the government removed doctors and nurses from the figures. But it’s feared a visa shortage will emerge again if EU citizens seeking work in the UK are not given special treatment after Brexit.

Russ Shaw, the founder of Tech London Advocates, welcomed James’s remarks. “What they show is that, in her role, the government is taking this seriously,” he told NS Tech. “They are seeing issues around the talent gap and she understands this better than most. Being a reasonable, sensitive voice in the discussion is absolutely vital.

“We’re going through a tricky six or seven months. We don’t know exactly what Brexit’s going to look like, but we do know that the talent issue is a very real one here and now. It may get even worse depending on the nature of the deal we have as we leave the EU.”

The government’s immigration proposals provoked a mixed response from the industry. Anthony Walker, deputy CEO of trade body techUK, said they would need a “completely new” system.

“The current rest of the world system is not fit for purpose. It is slow and cumbersome and cannot support the ambition of a global Britain that is open to the best high skilled talent. We need a smart low friction system that can meet the needs of fast growing companies. This needs to look and operate very differently to the system that we have today.”

The news came as research from Tech London Advocates suggested Brexit had made the UK less attractive to the international tech community. Two third of entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders surveyed said they believed the UK’s departure from the EU would have a negative impact on its tech sector. A quarter said they would not invest in a British tech company in the next 12 months.