How the UK’s immigration system failed tech talent during the pandemic

Although the government has published a new proposed brief for the future immigration system, the changes might be too little too late

This article originally appeared in Issue 11 of IT Pro 20/20, available here. To receive each new issue in your inbox, click here.

Kate moved to the UK two years ago from the USA. Her employer, a tech startup based in the Silicon Valley, had given her the opportunity to move to London to lead a team there. Kate quickly fell in love with her new home and planned to settle down there. However, her dream was cut short when her entire team was let go at the height of the pandemic in May. If that had not been bad enough, the redundancy also meant that Kate could no longer stay in the UK, as she was living in the country on the basis of a Tier 2 general work visa sponsored by her company.

With approximately one in ten UK tech industry workers being immigrants, Kate is not alone in this predicament. While many have lost their jobs during the ongoing pandemic, being forced to leave your home is an additional blow that could be avoided.

Cooling-off

Naomi Hanrahan-Soar is a lawyer and managing associate at law firm Lewis Silkin specialising in UK immigration law. She explains that once the general work visa is terminated and sponsorship of employment ceases, a notification is sent to the Home Office, which will then curtail the visa to 60 days.

“In practice though, the Home Office often takes quite a long time to issue that curtailment, so people will often end up with more than 60 days. The idea is that the 60 days is there to either make a new application once you’ve found a new sponsor or a different type of visa that is open to you. Or to leave the UK,” she says.

In the first three weeks of March alone, worldwide IT job vacancies fell by more than a fifth (-21.7%). Fortunately, the UK has, to an extent, recovered from the lack of opportunities, with advertised roles jumping by 36% since June, according to data collected by Tech Nation. However, the three month period between March and June meant that a number of tech industry workers might have been forced to leave the UK and must stay outside the country’s borders for at least one year.

“The reason for that is that Tier 2 is the most common skilled worker visa,” says Hanrahan-Soar. “You’re effectively banned from applying for a new Tier 2 visa unless you fall into one of the exceptions, which would require you to be on a salary above £159,600 a year.”

Even for some of the most successful tech industry employees, this amount is out of the question. As a consequence, the UK loses a number of its workers for at least 12 months, which is particularly concerning for the perpetually understaffed UK tech industry. 

A New Hope?

The country’s immigration laws could soon be changed for the better, however, according to industry body techUK. Since the beginning of the UK lockdown in March, the organisation has worked with the Home Office on the extension of general work visas, as a member of its Employers’ Advisory Group.

Nimmi Patel, techUK’s policy manager for Skills, Talent and Diversity, describes the current immigration system as “too cumbersome and clunky for employers and employees, with lots of pain points”. However she believes that the government is “doing its best” to streamline it, saying it “has been very keen to highlight that the immigration system should not undercut the UK labour market”.

“They have put forward a very technology-focused manifesto alongside their proposals for the immigration system so they're looking to do more to increase the number of people with STEM talent in the UK – and they’re getting rid of the cap on the tier two visas,” she tells IT Pro.

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“There's a clear understanding that there's a lot to be done with the immigration system to ensure that the UK sort of remains at the forefront of innovation and tech,” she says, adding that she thinks that this could be a “once in a generation opportunity to examine the UK immigration system”.

The new proposed brief for the future immigration system, published on 22 October 2020, takes away the need for year-long cooling-off periods as well as allow visa applicants to switch visa routes without having to first leave the UK. The new system started accepting new applications from 1 December.

Unfortunately for some, the change has come a few months too late. Kate was forced to leave the UK in August to start her cooling-off period. She has found a similar job in Switzerland, where she now resides.

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