Skip to content

Digesting announcements on Immigration and no-deal from the new Government

16 Aug 2019

Assistant Director Daniel Rathbone looks at two announcements from last week that will affect the science and engineering community

The new Government has been in place a little over three weeks now and in that time, we’ve already had a slew of new policy and spending proposals. In this post I will look at two from last week that will affect the science and engineering community in the UK and try to put them in the wider context of the Government’s plans, particularly on Brexit.

The first announcement was on immigration and it made front-page news. The Prime Minister said that he wanted the UK to be open to the brightest and best scientists from around the world after Brexit, and that the Home Office would create a new Fast Track Visa route “designed to attract elite researchers and specialists in science, engineering and technology”. Access to talented people is the absolute cornerstone of a thriving environment for science and engineering in the UK. So, any move to make it easier for the brightest and best scientists from overseas to come and work in the UK is positive and welcome.

However, the devil is in the detail – the Government’s press release said that the following options could be considered:

  • abolishing the cap on numbers under the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas
  • expanding the pool of UK research institutes and universities able to endorse candidates
  • creating criteria that confer automatic endorsement, subject to immigration checks
  • ensuring dependents have full access to the labour market
  • removing the need to hold an offer of employment before arriving
  • accelerated path to settlement

Abolishing the cap on the Tier 1 exceptional talent visa would be a welcome move. However in recent years the number of visas has not come close to the cap of 2000 visas per year (528 were granted in 2018, the most to date in a year). Therefore, the removal of the cap would need to be accompanied by a stimulus in demand. This could be achieved by a possible relaxing of the criteria for Tier 1 exceptional talent and a publicity drive to make potential applicants more aware of this route into the UK in order to increase its uptake. In this case the expanded pool of bodies able to endorse candidates would likely be needed to deal with an increase in applications. The rest of the points already apply to Tier 1 exceptional talent visas – so it remains to be seen how these will be applied in any new route.

It’s probably fair to say that these new proposals were not universally welcomed by the scientific community. This is because they come in the context of the Prime Minister committing to taking the UK out of the EU on 31 October even if that means a no-deal exit; and much of the research community in the UK think that no-deal will be an extremely damaging outcome for UK science.

The second announcement from the Government last week was that UKRI will consider funding any applications to Horizon 2020 programmes ‘in flight’ at the point of exit, in the case of a no-deal. This is a small but important extension to the existing Horizon 2020 underwrite guarantee, which covers funding already granted before exit. Horizon 2020 calls opening after the 31 October are not yet covered by this guarantee.

Back in February we submitted evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology on the most important issues for science and engineering in the event of a no-deal Brexit and potential consequences of which the Government needs to be aware. Many of these issues remain to be addressed by the Government. As we have discussed before the benefit of European programmes to UK science are as much intangible as they are financial and while funding could be replaced many of the intangible benefits will be put at risk by a no-deal exit. A restatement from Jo Johnson, the Science Minister, that the new Government’s aim is full association with Horizon Europe, as it was for the previous administration would be very welcome.

Ultimately the interests of science and engineering in the UK will be served by a constructive relationship with the European Union in the future. To avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit, we would urge the Government and Parliament to work together in reaching a consensus that supports science and engineering as well as the whole economy. Such an agreement must provide a firm basis for enabling a long-lasting and fruitful future scientific partnership with the EU.

Read our submission on no-deal

Read more