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Migration Advisory Committee recommends lifting the Tier 2 visa cap

A government committee has advised migration reforms to abolish the cap on the UK’s Tier 2 skilled worker visa

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The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has recommended that caps to the UK’s Tier 2 visa scheme should be abolished.

The committee, which was established to assess the impact of the European Economic Area (EEA) on the UK’s labour market, said if free movement were to end when the UK leaves the European Union, rules surrounding the migration of skilled workers would likely have to cover both those from the EEA as well as outside of it, in which case the Tier 2 scheme should be adapted to make it easier for skilled talent to enter the UK.

“If the UK is in a position where it is deciding the main features of its immigration policy, our recommendation is that there should be a less restrictive regime for higher-skilled workers than for lower-skilled workers in a system where there is no preference for EEA over non-EEA workers,” the report said.

The MAC report described the current Tier 2 (General) visa scheme as a “useful template” for future policies on migration, but said changes should be made.

It suggested these should include lifting the cap on the number of skilled workers who can enter the UK, extending the scheme to cover medium-skilled jobs as well as highly skilled workers, and abolishing the Resident Labour Market Test which requires employers to advertise roles in the UK for 28 days before they can expand their search for talent outside of the region.

The hope is that by applying these changes and making the process of applying for a visa easier and less expensive, fewer people will be deterred from applying to work in the UK because of complicated processes.

As well as making it easier for highly skilled workers to enter the UK, the MAC also suggested limiting access to those in lower skilled roles.

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Kerry Garcia, partner and immigration specialist at law firm Stevens & Bolton, said although skilled workers and firms who need them would benefit from these changes, businesses in sectors such as retail and hospitality might suffer because they rely highly on lower-skilled workers from outside of the UK.

“The MAC concluded that there are no compelling reasons to offer a different set of immigration rules for EEA and non-EEA nationals,” she said.

“This is a surprising conclusion, and one which will be disappointing to many employers in the UK that rely heavily on EEA nationals to fill roles. It’s also surprising given that the MAC found little, if any, evidence that EEA migrants have had a negative impact on the UK’s society or economy.”

Between December 2017 and March 2018, thousands of people who were eligible for Tier 2 visas were refused because of current government caps. Around 3,500 of those refusals were for people skilled in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) and medicine, among other skills the UK is in need of, such as Stem teaching.

Previous research has found 7% of jobs in the UK’s digital tech sector were filled by non-EEA nationals and 45% of net employment growth in the UK tech sector came from overseas.

Although initiatives such as the exemption of NHS doctors and nurses from the Tier 2 visa cap have helped make room for more tech workers, the UK could suffer from an immediate skills crisis if immigration rules remain the same after Brexit.

The Migration Advisory Committee cited research from job site Indeed which found job adverts that attracted the most interest internationally were for highly skilled Stem roles, and that software technology roles made up 11.6% of advert clicks from IP addresses outside of the UK.

UK tech sector decline

Prior to the MAC’s advisory paper, several industry bodies, including TechUK, warned the government that without an open and welcoming immigration policy after Brexit, the technology sector in the UK could decline.

“We hope the government will act on the MAC’s recommendation to lift the cap on the Tier 2 scheme and abolish the Resident Labour Market Test – both of which make it harder for the UK to access the talent it needs,” said TechUK CEO Julian David in response to the MAC’s recommendations. 

“However, as we bring down these barriers, we should be wary about erecting new ones.

“We hope the government will act on the MAC’s recommendation to lift the cap on the Tier 2 scheme and abolish the Resident Labour Market Test – both of which make it harder for the UK to access the talent it needs”
Julian David, TechUK

“Our current system is simply not fit for purpose to support the kind of immigration the UK’s digital economy needs. The skills needed to power our modern, digital economy simply do not exist within the UK’s resident labour market today.

“As the MAC states, immigrants make a positive contribution to both innovation and productivity, and there is a continued need for skilled migration into the UK. If the UK wants to be a global hub for tech, it needs to be a global hub for tech talent.”

While the MAC admitted that a lack of skilled workers in the UK did seem to affect innovation, and cited UK Innovation Survey research which found that 10% of innovative firms said a lack of skilled talent was a barrier to innovation, it also stated that the search for highly skilled individuals did not have to come from outside the UK.

“More innovative firms tend to be more reliant on skilled and highly educated employees,” the report stated. “Of course, migrants are not exclusively highly skilled Stem graduates, and reliance on high-skilled individuals does not automatically mean a reliance on immigration.”

Home-grown digital talent

The UK government has tried to create a supply pipeline of home-grown digital talent through the implementation of its computing curriculum, but results will not be seen quickly enough to plug skills gaps that may be left by Brexit.  

“Only an open approach to migration can ensure this continues,” said Dom Hallas, executive director of the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec). “The test now for the government is to keep the UK attractive to high-skilled workers in a post-Brexit world. For that, we need the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy in the visa system.”

Much like other industry bodies, Hallas warned that if the government did not follow the MAC recommendations by removing the Tier 2 visa cap, abolishing the Resident Labour Market Test and making the UK’s immigration policy more welcoming, startups and others that rely on skilled talent would struggle to grow and be innovative after Brexit. 

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