Immigration cap is City’s biggest complaint

MARIA from the Home Office called me about a recent key-worker visa application at 9.00am and suggested, in no uncertain terms, that she drop by for an immigration audit at lunchtime. We settled on teatime the next day. Britain’s clampdown on skilled migrant workers is in a rush.

My encounter with Home Office enforcers last week was typical of a new trend. Visa numbers cut. Visa lengths shortened. Key skill shortages holding up projects. Business going overseas where qualified workers can more easily settle. I talk to City people every day and the single greatest source of complaint has recently become the arbitrary implementation of the governments new interim immigration cap.

This cap, installed in July ready for new rules in April, is proving bad for business, they tell me. Companies operating in global markets, employing the best workers from around the world, are finding that they are getting to the front of the queue and finding that the shop is shut.

In a globalised world, no one country has all the skills it needs. One of the great things about globalisation is the way the best people work together on international projects, exchanging ideas from around the world and producing innovative, cost-effective products.

The government’s policy, due to be finalised by April, should be encouraging this. Or else Britain will be handing a competitive advantage to economies offering a more welcoming regime. At a time when we need more economic growth to pay off the nation’s debt, it seems crazy to many CEOs that the government is bringing in a twenty first century “brain block”.

With millions of people on benefits, the immigration minister Damien Green is right to expect companies to “look to fill vacancies from the resident labour force before they look for skills outside the UK”.

But every time a British company compromises on the quality of its human resources, it loses an edge and foreign competitors can steal some market share here, some margin there. Before long the British company is out of business.

Companies are increasingly breaking cover and saying publicly that they are frustrated by having one hand tied behind their back. GlaxoSmithKline, International Business Machines, General Electric, J.P. Morgan Chase and Deutsche Bank are amongst those businesses expressing concern in one way or another. Even the CBI last week seemed to be changing its stance, calling on the government to prioritise skilled workers with a job offer.

On the government benches, Vince Cable seems to agree. He told the BBC’s Today programme that he was “optimistic” current discussions with the Home Office would lead to a “more flexible system that worked for the benefit of Britain in general”.

Just to be clear, my friends in the City are not rejecting controls on immigration. The current system has lost credibility. But it seems unreasonable that British businesses, growing the payroll after recent recessionary cut-backs, are being rationed to 24,100 non-EU key-worker visas when 360,000 non-EU student visas were granted in the year to June, mostly to non-degree courses.

Most people see the need for better immigration controls. What we don’t need is an arbitrary cap that puts key-workers at the back of queue, making British business uncompetitive and hampering Britain’s future economic growth. The government should listen to Britain Plc and rethink how it handles the annual limit.

James Bethell is director of Westbourne Communications.