Rishi Sunak is to launch a new fast-track visa scheme to help Britain’s fastest growing companies recruit highly skilled workers, as part of a drive to build an “agile” post-Brexit economy.
The UK chancellor told the Financial Times in a pre-Budget interview that he wanted to help “scale up” sectors such as fintech to compete for the best global talent, saying the new visa system would be “a calling card for what we are about”.
Fintech bosses feared that Brexit and the end of free movement from EU countries would hold the nascent industry back, but the chancellor insisted that Britain’s departure from the EU was an opportunity.
“We want to be innovative, entrepreneurial, agile,” he said. “We can do things differently after Brexit. We want to be open to the world, we want to be world class at things.”
Sunak sees the fintech industry, which employs more than 75,000 people in the UK, as emblematic of the kind of economy he wants to support when he sets out his Budget next week.
As a Brexiter, the chancellor is under extra pressure from sceptical business leaders to prove he has a plan to offset the economic harm — according to Treasury models — caused when the UK left the EU single market.
The fast-track visa regime for UK “scale-ups” — companies with annualised growth of at least 20 per cent over three years with 10 or more employees — will help companies offset the loss of unlimited access to EU workers after Brexit.
Sunak said the idea, proposed in a government-sponsored review into finance and technology, was “an excellent idea”. The review by Ron Kalifa, former Worldpay chief, landed on the chancellor’s desk on Friday morning.
Under the proposal, highly skilled migrants with a job offer from a UK scale-up would qualify for a fast-track visa without the need for sponsorship or third-party endorsement.
The Kalifa review found that 42 per cent of fintech workers came from overseas. The sector, which has hubs in London, Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester and elsewhere contributes £11bn to the economy.
London’s success as a regional tech hub has been based on easy access to the best talent from around Europe, with founders often moving to set up their businesses in the UK owing to the combination of a pool of investors and a benign tax regime.
The UK tech sector has been calling for visas for its workforce since the referendum. The result sent a chill through London given many start-up founders are from the EU, raising questions over their future in the UK at a time when cities in the US, Asia and Europe are fighting to attract the fastest growing and most innovative groups.
The visas will come at a time when the need to base workers in any one country is disappearing, with the pandemic showing that workers can be based around the world with little impediment, however.
Also, the decision to allow visas for tech workers will raise questions from other skilled industries that face similar problems in recruiting talented workers from outside the UK.
Dom Hallas, executive director of the Coalition for a Digital Economy, said: “Accessing great talent is the single biggest challenge facing growing tech businesses in the UK. Most start-ups and scale-ups say navigating the crippling bureaucracy of the system hinders them most — so clearing the way for companies hiring from both the EU and beyond should be the government’s number one priority when shaping immigration policy going forward.”