Political momentum is building to take a fresh look at visa restrictions on international recruitment of skilled people.
The most media coverage has rightly been given to the refusal of 1,500 doctors, which the NHS desperately needs. But the government’s strict attitude to migration is causing problems across business professions and public services.
The Campaign for Science and Engineering has revealed that thousands of highly skilled workers from outside the EU have been refused visas in recent months due to the monthly cap on so-called “Tier 2” visas.
The data, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, shows that engineering, technology, IT and medical roles are particularly affected, making up over half of the 6,080 applications refused between December and March.
A third of refusals were in medical-related roles (1,880) and a further quarter in engineering, tech and IT (1,638). The cap continues to be exceeded and over half of applications are now refused each month.
As well as the significant impact on medical and technical roles, large numbers of visas have been refused for professions such as accountants, management consultants, and business analysts, as well as public services, notably teachers.
This is an old policy, but a relatively new problem. David Cameron’s 2010 manifesto promised to put a “cap on migration”. In 2011, the Home Office, under Theresa May, introduced a portfolio of measures including an annual cap on recruitment of non-EU skilled workers, which currently stands at 20,700 per year.
Since then, the situation has become urgent – the cap has been exceeded every month since December 2017, with no sign of demand abating.
Some politicians have called for special exemptions for doctors. Of course, the UK needs a migration system that allows recruitment of the medical specialists it needs. But an exemption for medical roles alone would leave the impact of the cap on businesses and other public services unresolved.
As former home secretary Amber Rudd said in the House of Commons last week, the government must “bear in mind the needs of the private sector and ensure that any solution does not merely put more pressure on the Tier 2 visa cap”.
The solution my organisation favours, along with many others, is to use the Government’s Shortage Occupation List to guide the process, and to exempt roles on this list from the cap, along with PhD-level roles. This would require only a minor change to regulation, and could be implemented swiftly.
There is precedent too, as visas for workers paid more than £159,600 are already excluded.
The upcoming visa rule change expected later this month would be an ideal opportunity to make this reform. This would relieve pressure on the cap and create the headroom for other vital roles to be given due consideration.
Some might balk at an immigration rule change for fear of public reaction. But polls routinely show overwhelming support for continued immigration of skilled workers, particularly scientists and engineers, with consistent approval of over 80 per cent.
It is hard to imagine the frustration of employers and candidates affected by this cap. Employers must recruit in the UK first, and only if there is no suitable candidate found can they turn to the international route. Visa refusals due to the cap block employers at the last hurdle of a long recruitment process.
The issue of why employers are unable to find suitable candidates for these roles in the UK is an important one. In science and engineering, there is an obstinate problem of lack of diversity of people studying and working in the sector.
This clearly needs addressing, and we must certainly look to develop homegrown skills where there are gaps. However, we must also welcome great people from around the world where they are needed and want to contribute to the UK.
It doesn’t have to be an “either, or” – a creative, innovative, thriving Britain needs both.
The Prime Minister is vocal on her ambition for the UK to be a leader in research and innovation, a central pillar of her modern industrial strategy. This will require both a pragmatic and proportionate migration system, and also a global charm offensive to attract the most talented people to the UK.
A visa change such as this would remove the growing frustrations of employers at a stroke and would send a powerful message to the global talent market.
In the long term, an immigration system for a Global Britain that supports research and innovation should not feature a cap on the international specialists we want to attract.
Refining visa rules in this way would enhance prospects for raising productivity, would support the industrial strategy, and would be welcomed by businesses and the public alike.