Right now, in boardrooms in Britain and around the world, business leaders are weighing up where to invest and grow in the years ahead.
In many cases, these companies are spoilt for choice, with countries large and small vying to attract their business by ensuring the most attractive possible environment for growth. Many firms that would have instinctively chosen the UK in the past are now having second thoughts. Yet it’s not just the twists and turns of Brexit that give them pause.
Instead, it’s the business environment, and the policies decided by Westminster rather than Brussels, that are increasingly cited as a key cause for concern. Worryingly, company after company now says that the UK’s increasingly draconian immigration restrictions — and uncertain future visa policies — have led them to the conclusion that Britain is closed for business.
The prime minister speaks repeatedly of her vision of a “global Britain”. Yet this laudable aim is being directly undermined by her own government’s stubborn policy of rationing visas for the skilled workers that businesses desperately need in order to grow. In each of the past six months the visa cap put in place seven years ago by Theresa May as home secretary has been reached.
The malign effects of the government’s arbitrary visa cap are being felt across the UK, with dynamic companies effectively priced out of hiring the talent they need as quotas bite and the salary thresholds for securing a visa have risen into the stratosphere.
This is a problem that hits London, the UK’s magnet for entrepreneurs and global talent, hardest of all. As research by the London Chamber of Commerce shows, 25 per cent of the capital’s workforce is from beyond these shores, compared with 8 per cent elsewhere in the UK. Those already here contribute £50 billion a year to the city’s economy and £13 billion in tax revenues. Yet the skills gaps facing employers continue to rise, despite huge investments in apprenticeships and training.
And whatever politicians may say, this isn’t just a London problem. Take the fast-growing technology company in Cornwall that spends more time in administrative battles with the Home Office than on business growth because it has been repeatedly unable to hire experienced programmers from a niche global market to power its expansion. Or the manufacturers in the North West whose growth plans require skilled engineers with a decade or more of experience, who are as rare as hen’s teeth on the domestic market. The social and economic cost of the Tier 2 visa cap is becoming clearer by the day in communities across the country.
It’s time to call out the fact that it is ideology, not common sense, that is stopping hospitals and GP practices from recruiting desperately needed doctors for an NHS under continued strain. It is ideology that stops our universities from recruiting key academic and technical staff, even as the government touts its industrial strategy and plans to boost spending on R&D. It is political stubbornness that is causing home-grown businesses to give up on expansion plans or relocate elsewhere because of the sheer cost and difficulty of recruiting those with the right skills.
Ironically, the very same employers facing the biggest skills challenges are also the ones that are investing hugely in future talent here at home. They realise they need a stronger pipeline of British workers and are committed to making it happen. Yet it can take five, ten, even 15 years to train some of the specialists businesses need. Meanwhile, skilled professionals will be needed from around the world, and fast.
It is my fervent hope that Sajid Javid, the new home secretary, listens to his liberal and pro-business instincts and spends his first weeks in office convincing the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues to scrap the cap, as he indicated he would do at the weekend.
As long as the Home Office continues to turn doctors, scientists, engineers, IT experts and exporters away from our shores, the government’s rhetoric about “welcoming the brightest and best” rings hollow. So, too, does any sense of an “outward-looking, global Britain”.
Scrapping the costly and damaging visa cap would give businesses around the world a sign that the UK is truly open for business. It would show the trading partners we are courting that we are open to their professionals. And for companies here at home who are struggling to recruit, it would give them newfound confidence to expand at a time when our stuttering economy needs all the confidence it can get.
This article was originally published in Times Red Box on June 5th, 2018. To subscribe to the Red Box, please visit www.thetimes.co.uk/redbox