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UK IT profession unimpressed by government immigration cap

Karl Flinders

The government has announced its cap on the number of non-EU immigrant workers allowed in the UK every year, but many in the IT profession believe it will do little to prevent abuse of an immigration loophole.

The government has promised to cut immigration to the UK from nearly 200,000 a year to "tens of thousands." It was a Tory pledge in the build-up to the general election, although opposed by the Liberal Democrats.

Although the bulk of immigration is non-work related and comes through student and family visas, the government is set to cut work-related entries.

But its decision to exempt Intra Company Transfers (ICTs) from the cap is controversial. ICT visas are used by multinational suppliers because they are allowed to bring staff to the UK if they have a UK operation. Thousands of IT workers, mainly at Indian suppliers, come to the UK every year on ICT visas.

According to the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo), about 80% of non-EU IT workers come to the UK on intra-company transfers.

However, the government's cap will see tier-one immigrants, who are deemed highly skilled, hit hardest, with only 1,000 people able to enter next year. Tier-two immigrants, who have a job offer in the UK, will increase from 13,000 to 20,700.

In an attempt to reduce alleged ICT abuse, the government has introduced a policy that means ICTs staying more than a year will have to earn at least £40,000. This is an attempt to make offshore suppliers less willing to bring staff from overseas to the UK because it is more expensive.

The Migration Advisory Committee said last week that ICTs have to be reduced if the government is to reach its target. MAC chairman David Metcalf said without a cap on ICTs, the government will have to find other ways. So rather than manipulating the quantity of ICTs allowed through a cap, the government will have to make it more expensive for businesses to use the ICT scheme to bring workers in.

But the cap and the minimum earning threshold only applies to workers who are in the UK for more than a year. Offshore suppliers will still be able to bring staff to the UK to work on short-term projects, or to be trained to serve UK customers and then do it remotely, and suppliers could switch workers after a year.

Another issue is the practice of suppliers bundling worker expenses such as accommodation on top of salary, making it artificially high.

The £40,000 minimum pay is set too low for the IT sector according to APSCo. "Whether the £40,000 minimum salary will reduce the number of intra-company transfers in the IT sector is debatable. The average UK wage for IT professionals is close to £40,000, and it is questionable how many workers earn less that that once they arrive," said CEO Ann Swain. "We will be seeking clarity from the government on how the £40,000 minimum will be reviewed."

Low-level IT workers from offshore are entering the UK on ICT visas, which are a threat to the long-term future of the UK IT profession, according to commentators.

Richard Holway at TechMarketView blogged this week about the problem. He is unhappy about the fact that low-level IT workers are coming to the UK.

"I am getting increasingly angry about this. I have no problem with highly skilled people coming to work in the UK provided there really aren't such skilled IT staff available in the UK. However, you can't become highly skilled unless you are trained. Since 2000, the number of entry-level IT jobs (be it for school leavers or graduates) in the UK plummeted."

The highest proportion of unemployed UK graduates are those that studied computer science, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) A massive 17% of computer science graduates last year are unemployed.

One source within the business community said it would be a mistake to cap ICTs because it would mean offshore suppliers becoming more expensive. This is a bad thing, he says, because so many UK corporates are heavily reliant on companies from locations such as India.

By cutting the number of immigrant workers in the UK, the government hopes to contribute to a strategy that will relieve pressure on the UK's public services. It also pleases businesses that can still access low-cost IT services. But the long-term prospects for the UK IT profession could still suffer as the cap does nothing to limit the abuse of the ICT route.


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