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Why the highly skilled migrant visa cap is in need of an urgent overhaul

When Theresa May introduced the 20,700 annual limit in April 2011 on the number of tier 2 general visas to be granted to highly skilled migrants, I wonder how many people thought that figure would not have changed 7 years late. It is in need of review and, most probably change, now.

We have just had the news that for the 6th month in a row, the cap has been hit. When there is an excess of applications, visas are decided on a points-based system that depends heavily on salary. In March, no one paid less than £60,000 a year was given a visa, while the figure for April was £50,000. The minimum salary to qualify for a Tier 2 skilled migrant visa is £30,000. Many say that without reform, the cap will continue indefinitely to be exceeded.

Is that an acceptable situation? Business says not. The Home Office says it is important that the immigration system works in the national interest, ensuring that employers look first to the UK resident labour market before recruiting from overseas. What kind of an answer is that? Let us fiddle while Rome burns!

We must presume (and hope) that the figure of 20,700 was arrived at scientifically and not plucked from the air.

The cap was first hit in June 2015. At that point the then Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, said there were no plans to change the current Tier 2 limit - and the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) would be advising on further reducing economic migration from outside the EU.
"Our reforms will ensure that businesses are able to attract the skilled migrants they need," he said. "But we also want them to get far better at recruiting and training UK workers first."

In December 2015 Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee published a report looking at skill shortages and Tier 2 of the Points Based System. It concluded that while this cap might serve a purpose in discouraging recruitment from non-EU countries, it had stimulated recruitment from EU countries.

Then Brexit happened and since then recruitment from EU countries has slowed. This has necessitated increased recruitment from non EU countries. Such recruitment requires a work visa.

There are 2 types of highly skilled employment visas, inter company transfer (ICT) and general. Since the government stopped the ICT visa being a route to claim indefinite leave to remain (ILR), migrants, particularly with families, desiring some permanency about their move to a foreign land (UK), prefer to come on general rather than ICT. That puts added pressure on the cap.

Shortage professions are not caught by the cap. This shortage occupation list changes from time to time and currently includes nurses https://www.gov.uk/guidance/immigration-rules/immigration-rules-appendix-k-shortage-occupation-list

The government usually looks to MAC for guidance before introducing changes to the visa system. In June 2017 the Home Secretary commissioned the MAC to consult on the current and future patterns of EEA migration into the UK, and the impact of this on the economy, and more generally on society. An interim report was published in March 2018. The final report is due in September 2018. It is meant to provide an evidence base for the design of a new immigration system to be implemented after the Brexit transition period in 2021.

Based on this, unfortunately it would seem we should not be holding our breath for a change to the cap level any time soon.

Tom Redfern