Net immigration to the UK has reached a record high, with 330,000 entering the country in the year leading up to March 2015, according to the Office for National Statistics.
This figure is more than three times higher than the government’s target to get immigration below 100,000.
There’s no denying that immigration is a tricky subject to navigate. Here at Techworld we’re regularly told by entrepreneurs that they can’t find the specially trained software engineers that they require to build their digital businesses.
An open gate policy will undoubtedly raise a number of problems but the Home Office’s current immigration laws are hurting businesses and organisations across the board, from the UK tech sector to the NHS.
It’s a well known fact that the UK has a skills shortage across several sectors. We don’t have enough doctors, nurses, accountants or technologists. As a result, we need to bring in skilled people from overseas.
However, prime minister David Cameron has an issue with this. He believes it is “frankly too easy” for UK businesses to hire people from overseas.
EU vs non-EU
Of the 330,000, it’s estimated that 183,000 came from the EU and 196,000 came from outside the EU.
If you’re a European citizen then it’s relatively straightforward to come to the UK, whether you have skills that will benefit the UK economy or whether, as some would have us believe, you plan to find a council house and sign up for welfare benefits.
If you’re from outside the EU, it’s much harder.
“For non-EU migration it's already very far from an open door,” said Guy Levin, a former government advisor that set up pro-startup organisation, Coadec (the Coalition for a Digital Economy).
This means talented coders from the likes of Silicon Valley and Bangalore are often kept at bay while EU immigrants with few skills are allowed in, with relatively few questions asked.
In order to get into the UK as a non-EU citizen you either need to have a Tier 1 visa or a Tier 2 visa. Virtually the only other way to get in is to enter as a student.
The Tier 1 visa is open to investors, entrepreneurs, and exceptionally talented individuals while the Tier 2 visa is for skilled migrants that have a degree level qualification, a job offer and a decent salary.
“Not much else is left, and these routes have already been restricted a fair bit,” said Levin. “It's hard to reduce non-EU visa routes further without damaging economic impacts. You could argue we're already seeing some of that.”
Tier 2 visa
The Conservative government has been exploring how it can further reduce non-EU immigration for some time.
Earlier this year it tasked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) with assessing what the impact would be if salary thresholds were raised on the Tier 2 visa. At the end of a several month investigation, the Committee warned the government there would likely be a negative impact on the UK economy if it did such a thing.
Meanwhile, the Home Affairs Committee, a House of Commons committee that examines the policy, administration and expenditure of the Home Office and its associated bodies, is carrying out its own inquiry into the impact of the Tier 2 visa cap, which currently sits at 20,700.
MP Keith Vaz, chair of the committee, said: “It is easy to see how this [cap] could impact on the services, sectors and small businesses who rely on skilled workers from abroad, and in the longer term impact on the economy.
“The Committee hopes to gain an insight into whether the current system is the best way to achieve the twin aims of controlled immigration that can maintain the level of skilled workers essential to providing the services we all rely on and enjoy."
In June the UK government locked out over 1,000 highly skilled individuals that were hoping to come here on the Tier 2 visa and have a positive impact on UK businesses.
Towards the end of the month, the government suddenly announced it had hit its quota for Tier 2 visas for June. Companies such as Google and Facebook rely on this visa to hire people from outside the UK, as do many of the UK’s homegrown digital startups.
While the big guns refused to criticise the issue on record, a number of small but promising tech companies were more than happy to have their voice heard.
“The cap on Tier 2 Visa is an anti-business policy to satisfy the right wing mob who do not understand immigration,” said Matt Warren, cofounder of tech startup veego.com, which was unable to hire a Ukranian developer as a result of the cap.
“I would love to hire a local developer to do this role and we have heavily advertised, but they do no exist. By bringing these highly experienced guys in, we are actually helping the economy, as they help train the next local generation.”
Tier 1 visa
The Tier 1 visa, open to investors and entrepreneurs as well as highly talented individuals, is another visa path the government is failing to use.
Up to 1,000 visas are available to non-EU citizens that are exceptionally skilled in a certain field but many of these are not being distributed. The Home Office allows reputable UK institutions, such as the Royal Academy and the Arts Council, to choose which individuals deserve one of these visas.
Last April, Tech City UK was granted the power to distribute up to 200 Tier 1 visas to immigrants that excel in the technology sector.
However, in the year leading up to April 2015, the quango endorsed just 10 of a possible 200 immigrants.
Time for change
If the UK government continues to close its gates to the world's best talent then large tech corporations and startups are likely to move to places where they can hire who they want, potentially having a catastrophic impact on not only the UK tech sector but the UK economy as a whole.
The “Save Skilled Migration” campaign has been launched by Coadec in a bid to push the government to create policies that support skilled immigration.
"We need to get away from the political target (to reduce net migration below 100,000) that fails to distinguish between students, low-skilled EU workers, and entrepreneurs,” said Levin.
“The call today from the Institute of Directors and others for a comprehensive evidence based review of the immigration system would be a good start."