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A fresh look at the cap on skilled workers

04 Jun 2018

Following the Home Secretary’s comments on taking a ‘fresh look’ at the Tier 2 visa cap, Deputy Director Naomi Weir examines the Government’s immigration policy and suggests what might happen next

A 2015 CaSE report said:

The arbitrary Tier 2 (General) cap of 20,700 sends a strong negative message to global science and engineering talent and business. It also poses a direct threat to the recruitment of the skilled workers needed to support growth, with valuable workers already being turned away. Therefore, to further Government policy of improving productivity and supporting businesses and science, the Government should reconsider the Tier 2 (General) cap.

Three home secretaries and over 6000 skilled worker refusals later, we heard yesterday that Sajid Javid is being very pragmatic and doing just that, by taking a ‘fresh look’ at the policy.

What is the policy?

Tier 2 (General) is the only visa route in the UK system subject to a limitation on the number of visas available. There is currently a cap of 20,700 per year.  Visas for workers paid more than £159,600 are excluded from the cap, as are applicants applying from within the UK with the exception of dependants of Tier 4 students switching to Tier 2. The 20,700 is broken down into monthly limits and if this limit is reached, jobs are prioritised on a point scoring basis that favours those with jobs on the Shortage Occupation List and those at PhD-level. Salary is then the final determinant. To be eligible for a Tier 2 visa, applicants must have a job offer from a UK based employer, there needs to be evidence that no one in the resident population could be found to do the role (either as it’s a role on the shortage list or through a resident labour market test), and it must meet minimum salary requirements (around £30,000).  

What has happened?

In a previous post I wrote about the problem with the Tier 2 cap, the scale of visa refusals in recent months that we revealed through an FOI request to the Home Office, and our proposed solution.

In brief, having only been reached once before since its introduction in 2011, between December 2017 and March 2018, 6,080 eligible applications for a Tier 2 (General) restricted Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) were refused due to the cap. Of the 6,080 total refusals, 3,500 were for engineering, IT, technology, STEM teaching and medical roles, with professional services making up the bulk of the rest. In the interests of transparency, we published the full set of figures we received. The cap has subsequently been reached in April and May and we are working with Parliament to try and get those figures published too.

So, it was very refreshing and welcome to hear Javid say “I see the problem with that”, referring to the cap being reached in his comments yesterday. It seems extraordinary, but this is the first public statement from the Government suggesting that turning skilled engineering, tech, medical, and other workers away in their thousands is a problem and the policy may need rethinking. And in some ways it is understandable. The Politics of amending this particular policy are tricky. It was set up by his boss after all. But thankfully the Home Secretary seems to have realised that the Politics and damaging implications for the UK of maintaining this policy justify sticking his head above the parapet to take a ‘fresh look’.

What might happen next?

In his comments Javid also said he was ‘committed to [the Conservative] manifesto’, so I don’t expect dramatic shifts in UK immigration policy direction just yet. But two things are on the Home Secretary’s side as he takes a fresh look. First, helpfully, the commitment to the tier 2 cap that was made in the 2015 manifesto was notable by its absence in the 2017 Conservative commitments. So Javid is well able to both be committed to their manifesto and amend the cap in the interests of the UK. And second, there is a very neat and easy to implement solution which I understand has broad support across party lines –  to exempt roles on the shortage occupation list and PhD level roles from within the cap. This would be in line with the priority already afforded them within this visa route. It also doesn’t require any new visa categories to be created so could be implemented swiftly and easily. Such roles would simply join roles attracting a salary of over £159,600 in qualifying for an unrestricted Certificate of Sponsorship. This would mean that there would be more headroom within the cap for other vital roles and we’d stop the self-harm we’re currently inflicting on our economy, public services and international reputation.

The Home Secretary took on an already difficult job in very difficult circumstances. Introducing an exemption in the upcoming immigration rule change due at the end of this month would be widely praised as a pragmatic decision in the interests of the UK and met with relief and cheers across the public and private sectors currently hamstrung by the effects of the cap. And I’d be cheering too.