More visas for the ‘brightest and the best’ – but will they work?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Autumn Budget speech reiterated commitments made on visas as the UK attempts to attract more skilled workers in the aftermath of Brexit. But with Scale-Up visa, High Potential Individual visa and Elite visa being added to a crowded field – not to mention temporary visas for those in professions portrayed as lesser skilled – is there an air of desperation surrounding the country’s attempts to lure talent?


Sunak told the Commons: “A third of our science Nobel Laureates have been immigrants. Half of our fastest growing companies have a foreign-born founder.

“So, an economy built on innovation must be open and attractive to the best and brightest minds. Thanks to our brilliant home secretary, today’s Budget confirms the eligibility criteria for our new Scale-Up visa, making it quicker and easier for fast-growing businesses to bring in highly skilled individuals.

“And the trade secretary’s new Global Talent Network, launching initially in the Bay Area, Boston and Bangalore, will identify, attract and relocate the best global talent in key science and tech sectors.

“All part of our plan to make our visa system for international talent the most competitive in the world.”

Optimistic tone

But behind the optimistic tone, the visas are intended to address a worrying trend. The government’s Innovation Strategy document, published in July 2021, put it like this: “We know that exceptional people and teams are key to vibrant innovation ecosystems. The location of new high-tech industries around the world is in part a function of where the early scientific and entrepreneurial leadership happened to be located.

“But we currently are losing the global competition to top talent. More inventors leave the UK each year than arrive here.”

Experts are feeling that some clarity is being lost with the welter of new visas. Katie Newbury, immigration partner at Kingsley Napley, says it seems the High Potential Individual visa will be aimed at applicants who have graduated from a top global university.

She says: “There will be no job offer requirement, giving individuals the flexibility to work and to switch jobs or employers. It appears this will be separate to the Elite visa which will be an unsponsored visa route for highly skilled individuals. I say ‘appears’ as there have now been many specific routes identified for highly skilled individuals and it is not entirely clear how they will interact with one another.”

One of the sources of confusion, Newbury argues, is “the unusual way immigration policy seems to being driven, with the Treasury rather than the Home Office taking the lead on announcements. In order to truly assess the scope and value of these new routes, we will need to see the detail when the immigration rules are published next year.”

Newbury welcomes the added detail on eligibility requirements for the Scale-Up visa. This will benefit highly skilled prospective employees of eligible companies – those that have experienced a 20% increase in turnover or staffing in the last three years – who will be earning at least £33,000.

The Global Business Mobility visa, says Newbury, is in fact an umbrella term with the Global Business Mobility route set to incorporate the existing intra-company transfer route, international agreement visas (for contractual service suppliers and independent professionals), secondments/short term assignments and a new route to supplement sole representatives and enable a team of up to five to come to the UK to establish a subsidiary of an overseas business.

Global Talent Network

Another prong on the immigration fork announced in the March 2021 budget is the Global Talent Network, which as Sunak said, has begun with projects in Silicon Valley, Boston and Bengaluru in India. Its aim is to bring highly skilled people to the UK in key science and technology sectors. The government has said it will work with businesses and research institutions to identify gaps in skills in the UK and then to identify talent in overseas campuses, innovation hubs and research institutions, then providing a concierge service to support people moving to the UK.

The Entrepreneurs Network’s founder, Philip Salter, is enthusiastic about the network calling it a “boon for innovation”. He adds: “Having liberal immigration rules only get you so far, but we also need pro-migration policies like this to proactively identify and persuade the world’s most talented people to settle in the UK.”

He believes the £33,000 salary threshold is reasonable but warns that success or failure “will rest with fees or hidden bureaucracy”.

Some of the visa fees are “exorbitant” says Salter, while bureaucracy must be reduced to an absolute minimum – “after all, that’s why we were able to attract the best and brightest entrepreneurs from the EU”.

For Newbury it’s a welcome development to see the UK “enthusiastically seek out international talent and put in place the infrastructure to support those considering moving to the UK” but it is “in contrast to much of the immigration messaging we see from the Home Office where the focus is increasingly on enforcement and stopping what they see as unwelcome migration to the UK.”

Contractors moving abroad

For Dave Chaplin, CEO and founder of tax and business consultancy IR35 Shield, anti-migration messaging is not the only issue deterring talent from locating in Britain: “The UK has lost a lot of talent because of the knock-on effects of Brexit and the off-payroll tax reforms that were introduced to the private sector in April. British contractors are moving abroad to escape the UK, escape IR35 and settle in a place that taxes them fairly and where they can still service their UK clients remotely.” This adds weight to the comment in the Innovation Strategy about the UK losing innovators.

And how does the focus on highly skilled talent relate to the very different approach take to those deemed to have not such lofty abilities but whose jobs are just as vital to the UK’s prosperity as anyone’s. Short-term visas for HGV drivers – referred to by Sunak fleetingly – abbatoir workers and butchers have so far failed to attract sufficient candidates.

Newbury says: “It becomes increasingly clear that a lack of staff available to work in roles the government considers lower skilled is increasingly holding back the UK economy and the recovery from the pandemic. While attracting highly skilled people to the UK is of course important, the UK cannot ignore the shortages which persist in these professions.

“Short-term ad hoc solutions do not seem to be adequately addressing these gaps in the labour market and the failure to truly grapple with this problem in today’s budget suggests the government is continuing to bury their head in the sand on this critical issue.”

Enticing prospect

This raises the question that the UK might not be such an enticing prospect for top talent if labour shortages elsewhere in the economy are seen as damaging supply chains relative to those in EU countries, and affecting the standard of life in Britain. After all, in recent months the foreign news media has been generously supplied with footage of petrol queues, empty shop shelves, hospitals under strain, and ports choked with containers.

Perhaps the “lower skilled” need their own visa inducements and should be valued more highly; perhaps in the end there will be so many types of visa that a return to freedom of movement with the EU may look rather attractive.

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