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The skills squeeze – time for science and tech companies to speak up on immigration leads

by Vernon Hunte

Immigration is perhaps the one policy issue where the Prime Minister’s commitment is clear and decisive. This is unfortunate for the science and technology sector.

The desperate efforts of the Home Office to achieve net migration targets has already resulted in the loss of a Home Secretary, and without reform will fatally damage ministerial ambitions to establish ‘global Britain’ as a leading science, tech and innovation nation. Brexit Entry

Tier 2 visas provide a route for skilled non-EU applicants with firm job offers to work in the UK. This week a freedom of information request by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) revealed that over 1,600 IT specialists with confirmed jobs in the UK were refused visas between December and March as the pathway hit capacity. During this period the Home Office received an unexpectedly high volume of applications, with speculation that the increased demand for Tier 2 visas was a consequence of Brexit discouraging EU applicants who would have otherwise applied.
Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, has inherited the target of reducing migration to below 100,000 annually, a legacy of Theresa May which ultimately cost his predecessor, Amber Rudd, her job when British citizens were found to be deported in error in the Windrush Scandal.

Limits on Tier 2 put the science and technology sector in direct conflict with other pressing workforce requirements, notably in terms of staffing the NHS. As Dr Sarah Main, Executive Director of Case points out “The tragedy is that this policy doesn’t work for anyone: the government, employers or the public.”

For a ‘Global Britain’ to succeed post-Brexit, research institutions and industry need access to highly-skilled workers from the global talent pool. Tier 2 was designed and built before Brexit for a very different political and economic era. If EU skilled worker migration continues to fall, then Tier 2 must be changed to account for this and to allow UK companies to compete internationally.
In terms of research further worrying news was heard when the Wellcome Trust spoke to the Commons’ Committee for Exiting the European Union. MPs heard that the Wellcome Sanger Institute had seen the number of non-UK EEA postgraduate applicants drop by half, with some EU nationals also turning down grant offers they had won. Evidence like this leaves ‘Global Britain’ looking worryingly parochial as EU science relationships are lost without being replaced from elsewhere in the world.

Which is why the sector should welcome the announcement by the Science and Technology Committee that it will be working up proposals for immigration and visa rules for scientists. The deadline to submit evidence to the Committee’s consideration is the 6th June. Now is the time for companies to make their voice heard to Government. Whilst the Government will be loath to start making special exceptions for particular sectors, the Committee’s proposals will be an important contribution to the public debate ahead of the Immigration Bill expected in Parliament next year.

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