It's the lull before the storm.
On 31 March, parts of the UK’s visa system will be overhauled. When Article 50 is triggered, European nationals will be treated differently to how they are now, but Theresa May is holding her cards close to her chest – a little too close for many European nationals, business owners and immigration experts.
It’s not all doom and gloom – or at least it doesn’t have to be. For the first time in over a decade, Brexit presents an opportunity to rewrite the UK’s visa system. We could reform parts of the system that aren’t working. For example, alongside the London Chamber of Commerce and the mayor’s office, we’ve been making the case for a London visa.
But whatever the changes, the aim should be the simplification of the currently hard to navigate system, where startups and scaleups face a confusing plethora of choices. For company founders, it’s a little like trying to navigate around London’s tube network blindfolded.
A company usually needs to get a Tier 2 sponsor licence to employ a non-EEA migrant. They are required to advertise for the role in the UK and the migrant must meet the labour market test and the minimal salary requirements. Entrepreneurs tend to come knocking when they identify one person that they need.
The three-stage process is laborious for a small firm. First, they must apply for the sponsor licence, which is easy enough, but a third of companies are then audited to ensure they have the systems in place to monitor a migrant. Business owners tend to shy away from a knock on the door from the Home Office. The business then must apply for a certificate of sponsorship and finally the migrant applies for a visa. The process can take months and there are Home Office and legal costs. Just explaining the process scares off 90 per cent of applications. It’s only when a business starts to scale that the benefits outweigh the costs.
A Sole Representative of an Overseas Business visa is a useful visa category because there is no investment required. It’s for an overseas company planning to set up a branch or subsidiary in the UK, although the migrant can’t have a majority shareholding or a controlling interest. With £200,000 investment, the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa allows incoming entrepreneurs to invest in British firms and get a visa, but they must be made a director of the company.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Other routes include the UK Ancestry visa, Tier 5 youth mobility and intern schemes, intra-company transfer and Exceptional Talent visas. These routes are testament to the fact that successive governments want talent to come into the UK.
But how should talent and skills be defined? What the Home Office deems to be a skilled and important job may not reflect the necessary salary for a Tier 2 visa. Just consider the great British fashion industry. It is suffering from a shortage of talented seamstresses and pattern cutters, and we don’t have the further and higher education courses that teach the skills due to a lack of demand from British students. Is it rational to try to force these skills out of an unwilling native population, when we could easily plug these gaps with skilled immigrants?
Entrepreneurs are not helpless to influence the system. The government is consulting and appears to be listening. When it announced a plan to force companies to disclose how many foreign workers they employ, the backlash was enough to make the government scrap the plans over the weekend. Entrepreneurs across all industries should be vocal about the sort of visa system they need. It might be another decade before we get another chance.