Brexit Britain will open to more tech professionals from outside EU, but...

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan November 14, 2017
A doubling of the current tech visa allocation for non-EU professionals in Brexit Britain. It's a start, but only just...

While Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Union (EU) haven’t made it far out of the starting gates yet, yesterday saw one nagging concern attract some welcome attention, with plans announced to double the number of visas open to tech professionals from outside the EU.

Attracting and maintaining qualified individuals to support a growing digital economy has been cited as a major concern by employers and policymakers since the Brexit vote. It’s also a major factor in attracting overseas, particularly US, firms to set up shop in the UK post-Brexit.

With that in mind, the UK Home Office intends to double the number of visas available for tech experts from outside the EU to come and work in the UK to a mighty…er, 2,000, a number which might charitably be described as a step in the right direction at least.

There will also be moves to simplify the visa application process. At the moment, the 1,000 Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas on offer are administered by five individual organisations, including Tech City UK.

The news was welcomed by UK technology sector trade association techUK, but with some caution. The body warned that a huge amount of work is still needed to create a fit-for-purpose immigration system. It called for the tech sector to get a similar arrangement to that which Brexit Minister David Davis pitched for the financial services sector yesterday, essentially a series of exemptions to allow for free movement of bankers. techUK CEO Antony Walker said:

Doubling the number of tech visas is a welcome and practical step towards supporting the UK’s fastest growing sector. As our economy continues to digitise, more and more businesses depend upon tech talent to support their growth. This isn't just a London phenomenon. There is going to be huge demand for tech skills in businesses right across the country.

For the announcement to be truly valuable, however, the Government must couple it with further flexibility on Tier 2 high skilled talent. It must also address concerns about the speed and costs associated with Tier 1 and 2 visas to ensure they can be used by companies large and small.

While this announcement shows the UK’s desire to be open to talent once we leave the EU, it alone will not compensate for the impact of Brexit. There is still a huge amount of work to do to clarify the rights of EU citizens that already work in the sector and to build a fit-for-purpose immigration system once we leave the EU. We ultimately need a light-touch UK/EU visa system based on an ‘ESTA for work’ model where companies can quickly and easily self-certify EU workers taking on roles.

International tech talent makes a huge contribution to the UK economy. For every ten highly skilled jobs that are created an additional four lower skilled jobs are created. The tech sector is increasingly the backbone of the economy, and making sure it can thrive post-Brexit is in everyone’s interest.”

For a services-exporting tech sector,  we need a kind of arrangement similar to what David Davis spoke of yesterday to enable the mobility of workers and professionals across the continent.  Exporting tech services depends on our ability to temporarily locate staff across Europe for both delivery and support.

And there's (a bit) more

While the visa expansion will grab the attention - and doubtless disapproval from some more right-wing leaning media outlets - there are some other useful announcements to accompany it:

  • An investment of £21 million to expand Tech City UK into a nationwide network – Tech Nation – to take the established hub model to more cities around the country, including Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Birmingham.
  • A new £20 million fund to help public services take advantage of UK expertise in innovative technologies like Artificial Intelligence.
  • The launch of a £20 million training programme which will challenge thousands of young people aged between 14 and 18 to test their skills against simulated online cyber threats.
  • A new £2 million broadband pilot voucher scheme from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), in Aberdeenshire, Bristol/Bath and North East Somerset, Coventry and Warwickshire, and West Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, clearly on a roll, the Prime Minister Theresa May and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond will today be meeting “top entrepreneurs and investors”. Both are normally seen popping up in the lobby at Microsoft HQ in Reading, but this meeting today has a wider attendance. The Prime Minister said:

Our digital tech sector is one of the UK’s fastest-growing industries, and is supporting talent, boosting productivity, and creating hundreds of thousands of good, high-skilled jobs up and down the country.

It is absolutely right that this dynamic sector, which makes such an immense contribution to our economic life and to our society, has the full backing of Government. Helping our world-class entrepreneurs and innovators to succeed is how we lay the foundations for our prosperity and build an economy fit for the future.

Technology is at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy, and we will continue to invest in the best new innovations and ideas, in the brightest and best talent, and in revolutionary digital infrastructure. And as we prepare to leave the European Union, I am clear that Britain will remain open for business. That means Government doing all it can to secure a strong future for our thriving tech sector and ensure people in all corners of our nation share in the benefits of its success.

My take

Look, I’m not about to criticise giving more investment to growing the UK digital economy, with or without a Brexit backdrop, but this all seems terribly half-hearted when you take a look across the Channel and see what the French government is getting ready to splurge in order to win tech inward investment away from the UK. The British game is going to have to be well and truly upped pretty soon. There’s only so far you’re going to get on inward investment by the tax man turning a blind eye.

I’m unclear what today’s roundtable is intended to achieve.The attendees are worthy individuals and organisations, but where are the big outside investors in the UK, like Oracle, IBM, Salesforce, Apple etc? Even the blessed Microsoft isn’t on the list. And what about some of the bigger established UK success stories, like UKCloud, companies with a track record of growing a business in the current climate?

Instead it’s a curious mix of attendees. I mean no disprect to anyone who’s going along, but I’m struggling to see the common ground between e-commerce firm The Hut Group, Techmums, a social network to skills up mums in social media, coding and online safety, and Alba Orbital, a satellite manufacturer. All worthy organisations, but I’m curious to see what emerges from this roundtable other than some generic words about the importance of the digital economy, investing in skills and a photo opp with Theresa May.

Update 13.43pm - Alba Orbital informs me that its invitation to attend today was withdrawn after it raised concerns about the UK satellite registration process. Quite what this implies about the 'robust' nature of today's talks is open to interpretation.


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