Tier 2 visas: how the NHS exemption will benefit other sectors

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The removal of doctors and nurses from the cap on Tier 2 visas for highly-skilled workers has been welcomed and could be part of the solution to the NHS’s resourcing crisis. But what about other sectors struggling to get the staff they need? Ashleigh Wight looks at how others will benefit and what needs to be done to make the migration system fairer.

The Home Office last week announced long-awaited changes to the Tier 2 visa system by removing doctors and nurses from the cap on the number of visas that can be issued to skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).

While the decision will undoubtedly relieve some of the burden on the NHS, it will also help employers in other short-staffed sectors – including engineering, IT and science – fill some of their vacancies through the greater availability of visas not taken by doctors and nurses.

Currently, migrant workers from outside the EEA must apply for a visa under the Tier 2 system if the role they have applied for has an annual salary of £159,600 or less.

These visas are restricted to 20,700 per year, with varying numbers available every month. This cap has been exceeded every month since December, pushing some employers to breaking-point.

The shortage of skilled labour was exacerbated by the result of the EU referendum, according to Kerry Garcia, partner at law firm Stephens & Bolton, with EEA nationals leaving the UK before Brexit. Employers have therefore had to look further afield to fill their vacancies, but only few have been successful.

“For example, in May 2018, in circumstances where the role was neither a shortage occupation role nor a PhD role, only roles with annual salaries of £55,000 or above were granted a restricted certificate of sponsorship,” Garcia says.

Refused applications

While swathes of doctors and nurses denied visas has grabbed the headlines over recent months, other occupations have too felt the impact of the Tier 2 restrictions on their staffing levels.

Home Office data obtained by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) – a body that represents scientific businesses, universities and charities – revealed the extent the Tier 2 restrictions were having. Between December 2017 and March 2018, 6,080 Tier 2 (General) certificates of sponsorship were refused due to the cap being exceeded. In March, 59% of all eligible applications for a Tier 2-sponsored visa were refused.

Around 20% of the visas that were denied between December and March were for those who had applied for IT and technology roles, 6% were engineers and 29% were those in “professional services” – including accountants, solicitors and financial advisers.

In May 2018, in circumstances where the role was neither a shortage occupation role nor a PhD role, only roles with annual salaries of £55,000 or above were granted a restricted certificate of sponsorship,” Kerry Garcia, Stephens & Bolton

Other healthcare roles were affected, such as pharmacists and occupational therapists, and 197 teachers were denied a visa – nine of which taught STEM subjects.

Dr Sarah Main, executive director at CASE, says the relaxation of the rules was a major step forward for many sectors, not just the medical profession. But, to ensure that the post-Brexit migration system is a success, she suggests the government needs to take on board what it has learned over the last few months.

“For the UK to be a research and innovation leader, as the Prime Minister wants, we need a streamlined, proportionate migration system along with a global charm offensive to attract the most talented people to the UK,” Main adds.

Barriers to employing non-EEA workers

By taking doctors and nurses outside of the annual cap, there will be more certificates of sponsorship available for employees in other sectors. However, Garcia says some of the bureaucracy involved in the Tier 2 visa system meant employers could be reluctant to employ a non-EEA worker.

“These include onerous obligations which employers have to take on as a sponsor, the fact that there are strict advertising requirements before an employer can sponsor a non-EEA national and high immigration fees,” she explains. “Indeed, it costs many thousands of pounds in immigration fees alone to sponsor someone and this is a particular deterrent to small employers. It is also presumably an additional cost burden for the NHS which relies heavily on sponsored workers.”

A static list can never capture emerging and flexible needs of our economy, particularly in fast moving science and innovation sectors,” Dr Sarah Main, CASE

Matthew Fell, UK chief policy director at the CBI, says the changes were a “good first move” in addressing the UK’s skills crisis. But he suggests there is still some work to be done: “A successful migration system should focus on people’s contribution to the UK economy and society, not numbers. Until our immigration system is reformed to reflect this, including scrapping the net migration target, businesses will continue to struggle to get the people they need to create jobs and growth.”

Shortage occupation list

The government has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review the shortage occupation list – which details roles that have a better chance of being granted a visa under the Tier 2 system – to better reflect where are is a shortage of labour.

“But a static list can never capture emerging and flexible needs of our economy, particularly in fast moving science and innovation sectors,” CASE’s Main says. “We must look to develop home-grown skills where there are gaps, but we must also welcome great people from around the world where they are needed and want to contribute to the UK.”

Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Biology (RSB) called for the Government to wake up to the fact that circumstances had changed since the Tier 2 system was introduced, and shortage occupations needed to be exempt from the restrictions.

Dr Mark Downs, chief executive of the RSB, says: “By exempting PhD and shortage occupation list roles we could not only address the current shortage but send a message that technical and research workers are valued and welcome in the UK, and that we can facilitate collaboration; this is a vital message to send now.”

While much of the Home Office’s announcement centred on the benefits it would offer the NHS, it’s clear the government has woken up to how the restrictions to Tier 2 system is affecting employers, whichever sector they operate in.

Ashleigh Webber

About Ashleigh Webber

Ashleigh has been a business journalist since 2012. She covers HR, recruitment and employment issues, as well as occupational health and wellbeing.
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