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Cap on visas for skilled jobs doesn’t work for anyone

Image: Sarah Main

The monthly limit on Tier 2 visas harms both the UK’s economy and its reputation, says Sarah Main.

In the past three months, visa limits have prevented people from taking up jobs they have been offered in medicine and engineering, among other fields. The cap on Tier 2 visas was reached in December, January and February.

At least 20 doctors were refused visas for jobs at Birmingham and Cambridge university hospitals, according to media reports. I know of one research organisation refused visas for eight engineers this winter due to the cap being reached.

Time-critical projects are being held up because engineers with the right skills have been turned away. This damages productivity and knocks business confidence.

The Tier 2 visa is for skilled workers from outside the European Union with a job offer. Employers wishing to recruit using this route have to show that there is no suitable applicant in the UK.

The visa cap is set at 20,700 a year, with a monthly limit of about 1,600. In the past, the cap was rarely reached—the last time was in June 2015 when, as the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) discovered, 66 applications were refused for engineering roles.

Now, however, it is thought that declining numbers of EU job applicants, particularly in the NHS, is driving up recruitment from outside the EU. Employers and legal experts expect applications to exceed the cap for an extended period—at least until March—as reapplications add to the pressure on limited places.

I can only imagine the dismay caused to applicants and employers when visas are refused simply because that month’s cap has been reached. Employers may seek to reapply in a time-limited window, but pressure on places is predicted to remain high. If the reapplication is not successful the recruitment process has to start again, seeking UK applicants first, delaying recruitment to such an extent that the initial overseas candidate would surely turn to opportunities elsewhere.

There is a widely acknowledged shortage of engineers in the UK, so employers have to look abroad to recruit people with the skills needed for complex projects. This mode of recruitment needs to work easily for employers, and should complement nationwide efforts to build up the pool of homegrown talent in engineering.

The Home Office holds a shortage occupation list of jobs in which there is a recognised shortage in the UK. Most of these are in science, engineering and healthcare. When the cap is reached, a points system kicks in that gives priority to jobs on the list, and to other categories such as PhD-level posts.

However, a salary threshold also operates, and this rises when demand is high. In the past three months it is understood to have reached £55,000 per year, which excludes a wide range of jobs in medicine and engineering.

CaSE is working with concerned MPs to discover how many scientists and engineers were denied a Tier 2 visa in the past three months; we await the answer.

The tragedy is that this policy doesn’t work for anyone: the government, employers or the public.

The government repeats its mantra that Britain should be open to the brightest and the best, and yet this policy specifically rejects those people.

Employers are clear that access to international talent in a fair, fast and transparent way is crucial.

Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of the continued immigration of skilled workers, particularly scientists and engineers, with polls showing 80 per cent approval rates among Brexiteers and Remainers alike, both before and after the referendum.

The government must rebuild confidence in the short term and create a streamlined system in the long term. CaSE’s vision is for an evidence-based migration system that supports the mobility of scientists and engineers for excellence, skills, education and collaboration. This system would be transparent, proportionate and frictionless.

As part of this reform, the annual cap on Tier 2 visas should be removed. In the short term, to boost confidence in the Tier 2 system, roles in the NHS and on the shortage occupation list should be exempt from the cap. That would begin to redress the damage being done to the UK’s reputation as an attractive place for talented scientists and engineers to settle.

From my day-to-day conversations in parliament, it seems that political support for fluid migration of scientists and engineers is high. The data suggest that public support is high. However, it seems that nervousness about the public reaction to any changes in immigration policy is so high that the government is paralysed into inaction on even the most uncontroversial of reforms.

Sarah Main is the executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight