Thousands of skilled workers – including IT specialists and engineers – have been refused visas this year due to the British government's much-maligned immigration cap.
According to figures released today, more than 6,000 Tier 2 (General) visa applications by people who had job offers from companies in the UK were refused between December 2017 and March 2018.
Technically speaking, their certificate of sponsorship (CoS) applications, filed by their would-be British bosses, were refused, a move that ultimately denied them their necessary work visas.
Tier 2 is used for most hires in the science and tech sectors, as well as healthcare, but the government has capped entry through this route since 2011 at 20,700 a year. This figure was slammed by science and tech bodies and employers as arbitrary. Until recently the cap was rarely hit but that may be changing.
Of all eligible applications for a Tier 2 (General) certificate of sponsorship, 36 per cent were refused in December, while some 47 per cent were refused in January and 48 per cent in February. The proportion rose to 59 per cent in March.
This amounted to a total of 6,080 applications refused – although this might not represent 6,080 people, because one of the knock-on effects of the cap is that would-be workers just reapply in the next month, increasing overall pressure on the system.
The figures, obtained under Freedom of Information laws by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), which has lobbied for the abolition of the cap, show that 1,226 of the total applications rejected were in IT and technology roles, with some 429 CoS rejected in March.
This is the third highest four-month total, after professional services (1,814) and doctors (1,518). Some 392 refusals were for engineering roles, while 361 were in other healthcare profession roles.
"These figures show the scale of the problem and the urgency to find a solution," said CaSE executive director Sarah Main.
"Across the country, businesses and public services are being blocked at the last hurdle from recruiting the people they need... This leaves employers frustrated and the public poorly served."
Main argued employers need a predictable immigration system, but that the monthly limits increases uncertainty.
She added that rejections “send a damaging message that the UK is not open to the ‘brightest and best’ across the world” and could harm confidence in the UK’s immigration system.
Calling for major reforms, Main said that, in the long-run, an immigration system "that supports research and innovation should not feature a cap on the international specialists we want to attract".
In the meantime, CaSE urged the government to exempt jobs on the shortage occupation list – which includes physics teachers, nurses or mechanical engineers – from the cap entirely.
At the moment, these roles – along with those that require a PhD – are ranked higher than other visa applications when the monthly decisions are made, with salary the deciding factor. Anyone coming to the UK with a job paying more than £159,600 escapes the cap entirely.
In response to the figures, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee revealed plans to develop its own proposals for immigration and visa rules for scientists.
"Today's revelation that more than 1,600 IT specialists and engineers offered jobs in the UK were denied visas between December and March sends the message that the UK is not interested in welcoming science talent at the moment," said committee chair Norman Lamb. "The government needs to work quickly to correct that impression."
The committee plans to draw up its own proposals for the government to consider ahead of Brexit, which the sector has viewed as a prime opportunity to reform the rules.
However, Lamb expressed disappointment that the government hadn't heeded his committee's proposal – set out in its recent report Brexit, Science and Innovation – to bring forward the Migration Advisory Committee's conclusions on science.
"It was disappointing that the Government doesn't see the need to secure an early science pact, and assumes that scientists are happy to just wait and see what's in the Immigration Bill next year," he said.
"We're going to roll up our sleeves now and set out our proposals for an immigration system that works for the science and innovation sector."
The committee is accepting submissions up until 6 June and an evidence session is to be held on 19 June. ®