Home Office appointment angers industry groups.
The government stoked controversy this week by appointing an Indian IT trade body to a panel set up to advise officials on work permit policy for the IT sector, despite opposition from many of the panel's existing members.
The India Business Group, which is supported by the Indian High Commission, will represent large Indian software suppliers on the IT Sector Skills Panel. This plays an influential role in deciding what types of IT jobs qualify for work permits.
The move has come under fire from IT bodies on the panel, whose members include the British Computer Society, the Association of Technology Staffing Companies and trade union Amicus. They have accused government officials of disregarding their concerns about the appointment.
The issue of work permits has hit the headlines over recent months, following allegations from contractors that the government is issuing a large number of work permits to overseas IT staff at a time of record unemployment, and that some Indian employers are exploiting loopholes in the work permit system.
But Work Permits UK, the Home Office agency responsible for work permits, said the appointment will bring a balance to the panel by giving companies that use work permits a stronger voice in its decision-making.
Panel members said they were concerned that the appointment of the IBG would damage the work of the panel by opening the floodgates to other overseas bodies. Many also expressed concerns over the apparent conflict of interest in having Indian firms on a group that should represent the economic interests of the UK.
Of the nine industry members on the panel, six who were contacted by Computer Weekly last week said they had told the government that, while they would be happy to hear the IBG's views, it would be inappropriate the group to be given full membership of the panel. Two members were unavailable for comment.
Matthew Dixon who represents the BCS on the panel, said, "The argument from Work Permits UK has some merit, but I am not sure it overrides the basic consideration of needing a UK perspective on policy for immigration."
"We were most surprised by the decision, given the general opposition to the inclusion of the IBG by many of the current panel members representing a wide range of interests," said Amicus national organiser Peter Skyte.
The appointment of the IBG to the sector skills panel coincides with lobbying from Indian IT firms. A delegation from the Indian software and services association met with DTI and Home Office officials earlier this month to discuss government plans to review the work permit system and the pressure to impose tighter regulations on work permits. The IBG has recently held informal meetings with officials from Work Permits UK and the DTI.
The Home Office said the IBG would make a valuable contribution to the IT Sector Skills Panel. "The IBG represents some major UK employers. We are looking to make sure users of work permits are represented on the panel. The economic interests of the UK are a key interest of Work Permits UK, but if we are to do our job we need employer representation and the IBG fulfills that role."
The IBG was unavailable for comment.
- "I don't think it is appropriate for the India Business Group to be on panel. The panel is not about protectionism but it is about UK business and the UK having appropriate skills at the appropriate time"
Ann Swain, Association of Technology Staffing Companies
- "If the India Business Group is able to add to that knowledge and advice then I see no reason why it should not be invited along to one or more meetings. That's my personal view and probably the way I would represent the REC"
Fiona Coombe, Recruitment and Employement Confederation
- "I would be more than happy for the CBI to be on the panel. The other organisations on the panel are driven by the motivation of supporting the long-term prospects of the UK. You can't say that about the India Business Group"
Gurdial Rai, Professional Contractors Group
- "It seems to me really that we have to advise government on immigration policy and that needs to be something we discuss from a UK perspective. There are other activities that are trying to level playing fields with respect to the labour market internationally"
Matthew Dixon, British Computer Society
- "We are not opposed to having a strong employer input to the panel but it should be through organisations representing industry sectors in the UK. By definition the India Business Group can only represent the interests of Indian companies and it is difficult to see how the IBG can fit into the framework of the skills panel"
Peter Skyte, Amicus
- While the panel should hear the views of the India Business Group, that did not necessarily mean that the group should become a full member. "There are a lot of organisations who may deserve to be part of the panel. You would like a balance to be struck between ensuring that the panel is represented to the industry and the issues which surround it and making sure it is able to carry out its function you can't make the panel ineffective"
Nick Kalisperas, Intellect