#ITjobs – Open to all immigrants from 2021?
Posted on 10th February 2020
Immigration was a key factor for a lot of people in the Brexit debate. It still is, with, I’m sure, every industry busily making its case to Whitehall. We have also seen Holyrood attempting to create its own visa arrangements for Scotland, only to have them firmly rebuffed, although as I note below, there may be a way to offer Scotland and indeed the other constituent nations/regions of the UK slightly different arrangements. Such flexibility will be important if the new approach to immigration is to succeed. The key question is whether we will get the balance right between the political wish for tighter immigration controls and the government’s ambition (and, in my view, the country’s need) to welcome the best talent from around the globe.
Here, for obvious reasons, I am going to concentrate on IT. To start, let’s visit gov.uk - the UK government’s website - where, under the heading, “New Immigration System: what you need to know” we read first that “The UK is introducing a new points based immigration system,” followed by the statement that “This page will be updated with the latest information about the new, points-based immigration system as it becomes available.” This is dated 28thJanuary, 2020. It then goes on to link to the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and their report of the same date.
The MAC report is a welcome contrast to the previous Conservative administration’s somewhat cack-handed approach that seemed to be intent on making it difficult to bring skilled individuals to the UK. Given that it’s well documented that there are a number of sectors which are suffering severe skills shortages, this approach, however much it was based on a perceived political necessity to reduce the overall number of incomers, reflected a lack of joined-up thinking.
If, as I think is generally agreed, we need those with STEM skills generally in order that our economy can prosper and take advantage of the opportunities that the Prime Minister sees in Brexit, where are we going to get them from? As we have been writing on the Be-IT blog for many years, this country’s education system is, if not failing, at least not succeeding in turning out either the quantity or, some would argue, the quality of STEM graduates required.
Now, irrespective of whether you agree with Boris or not about the extent of the opportunities that come with Brexit (and like it or not, it’s happening), he has a track record of supporting immigration. Also, it would be foolish to deny there will be opportunities in Brexit, or at least that in the event of it all going pear-shaped we’ll need to invent, innovate and adapt our way out of the mess. In either of those circumstances, we’ll need people with the tech skills, experience and knowledge to make things happen fast.
Whether it’s finding a possible cure for cancer, a solution to the coronavirus or the technology that will reduce our reliance on carbon, improve our air quality and slow the less attractive aspects of climate change, if UK firms can take a lead, or at least play a more leading role than hitherto, they will create wealth and jobs – and the wealth will create a breathing space to help offset the coming technological unemployment that will accompany the dash to AI and robotics (as well as making us healthier, our air cleaner and our summers not quite so scorchio).
On 9th February, the Sunday Times reported on what seems to be current government thinking, with the strong implication that this is going to become official policy. I would add the caveat that, at the time of writing, the gov.uk site has not yet been updated with any new information, but we now seem to have moved on from the soundbites and campaign slogans of the election to a stage where real-life factors are being taken into account.
Of course, the political ramifications will still play a key part in the final decisions, but it’s to be hoped that an 80 strong majority might allow the government to do what’s best for the long-term rather than opt for the short-term expediency normally favoured by our politicians. That said, it seems likely that what we’re going to get is a mixed system that relies on an Australian-style points-based system for those coming to Britain without a job and a minimum salary threshold for those who have job offers.
More specifically, under the proposed plan, skilled migrants will get points for:
- A job offer commensurate with their skill level.
- A job offer from an approved sponsor company.
- A salary of at least £25,600 a year. This is consistent with the recent recommendation of the MAC and is less than the £30K level previously mooted. Moreover, the score awarded for salary will be “tradeable” on a sliding scale, with people on £23,000 still able to earn points and thus come to the UK if they also score well on other points (e.g. speaking English). Perhaps crucially for the IT sector, those who earn less than £25,600 will score double for working in a sector where there is a skills shortage (assuming this includes IT?)
- Speaking good English. (although what ‘good’ is has not been specified)
- Those with an “outstanding” educational background would also gain points. A PhD in a subject relevant to your job would be worth the same as speaking good English.
A simple points-based system seems set be introduced from the start of 2021, with a second phase of reforms following later that year. The intention is that the Home Office will spend 2021 refining the system so that:
● Positive and negative points are awarded for age, with young people boosted and elderly people marked down.
● More points are awarded to those planning to work outside London. Again, I see this as being very important for IT, especially in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England. The MAC proposed a ‘pilot visa for “remote” areas of the UK’ and, as part of the second phase described above, a willingness to open salary thresholds further and devolve power to the regions makes sense to me. Scotland might then be able to implement its desired system.
● Those educated in the UK can also boost their points (i.e. students).
It’s important to note that the skilled visa route will be only one of five ways of coming to the UK, although as these do not generally affect IT recruitment, I’m not going to make much further reference to them, other than to say that the intention is to cover those with “global talent” (i.e. geniuses/entrepreneurs, etc. whom the government wants to be working here rather than elsewhere), plus seasonal agricultural workers, unusual freelancers such as actors and musicians and, of course, students. There are also suggestions that in phase two, sector-specific short-term visas could also be introduced to meet the needs of sectors such as care and construction.
Students could certainly be important. They currently account for nearly 300,000 short-term migrants a year. How many of them might be persuaded to remain here once they have graduated, if they have a suitable job offer from an approved IT sponsor company?
One key change will be in the ratio of immigrants from outside the EU. Currently, about half come from the EU and the other half are non-EU migrants. This is expected to change, with two-thirds of skilled migrants coming from outside Europe in the future. To be honest, I don’t think our clients – the start-ups, the big tech employers and the public sector striving to introduce new skills to improve efficiencies across the board – ultimately care where these people come from so long as they fulfil the basic requirements – can they do the job, do they want to do the job, and do they fit in to the culture? I’ll add that immigrants need good English skills (although they can quickly learn the language), allied to the knowledge, experience, drive, determination and enthusiasm to make things work. With all these, it doesn’t matter whether they are from Mongolia or Motherwell.
When will we have this confirmed? Well, The Sunday Times tells us that “A letter outlining the details of the policy is to be sent to cabinet ministers this weekend. Approving it will be the centrepiece of a cabinet meeting on Friday, the first for Johnson’s new ministerial team after the prime minister’s planned reshuffle of his top team on Thursday.” Watch this space.
One final thought. As Robert Colville noted in The Times, arguably the key tech in all this is not the kind that will arrive with new, highly qualified immigrants from overseas. As he notes, “What Priti Patel needs at the Home Office, for example, is not a clever new blueprint for an immigration system: she already has that. She needs best-in-class talent and technology to get it up and running on time and on budget.” He’s not wrong. It would be ironic if a scheme that looks as if it has a fair chance of working were to fail for lack of technological infrastructure.
Gareth Biggerstaff, CEO, Be-IT
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