Monday 16 January 2017 5:29 pm

UK tech urges Theresa May to clarify skilled immigration in hard Brexit speech

The UK tech industry is calling on Theresa May to consider the need for skilled migrants in her plans for Brexit, which are due to be revealed in a highly-anticipated speech on Tuesday.

The Prime Minster is expected to lay out her most detailed plans yet for a so-called hard Brexit that would mean an exit from the Single Market, customs union and jurisdiction of European courts.

However, she is also expected to end freedom of movement which has caused the greatest concern among the tech industry since the vote for Brexit.

Read more: UK tech is outraged about Rudd's immigration crackdown

Around a third of its workforce is estimated to be made up of EU nationals and without access to skills from Europe, future growth prospects could be undermined significantly.

"We need clarity on skilled migrants," said Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates.

"The challenge is to articulate that it's good for the sector and the economy, it's knowledge transfer, and has helped create London and the UK's tech sector," he told City A.M.

He also called on clarity on the status of EU nationals in the UK: "She may not do it tomorrow, but she needs to do it soon. It will create a lot of damage [if not], and not just in tech."

The majority of the industry were on the side of remaining in Europe and have since lobbied for a "soft Brexit" with access to the European market and talent.

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Rob Kniaz, founding partner at Hoxton Ventures, a backer of Deliveroo and Darktrace, said: "The key thing is just making it clear the policy for retaining skilled EU talent here, and preferably an easy path for skilled labour to come here in the future."

"If they do that, well I'll sleep very easy. The Tech City visa is a good starting point but it needs to be streamlined to handle more than the current volume."

In addition to clarity on skilled migration, there would need to be a greater focus on growing homegrown digital skills which are currently in shortage, said Shaw.

Tech City UK's Gerard Grech said: "Access to talent is a critical issue for the city’s tech community and Tech City UK is working closely with government to make sure it understands why companies and entrepreneurs need to be able to continue hiring highly skilled staff from around the world because of their rapid rate of growth."

Read more: It’s time Britain stopped dancing to the tech giants’ tune

However, Shaw said he was left "scratching his head" at the different messages coming from different government departments on the issue: "It's whatever it takes to remain competitive coming from the chancellor, but we're not seeing that message here."

Grech said 2016 had been a record year for applications for the organisation's exceptional skills and exceptional promise visa, with no decline in demand in recent months.

He added: "The government needs to make it easier, not harder to attract highly skilled talent, together with a national skills initiative that encourages home-grown talent to go into the sector."

BGF Ventures partner Harry Briggs said: "Even Trump is looking at opening the door for skilled migration in tech – this is absolutely crucial to restore confidence to the burgeoning UK tech sector."