A Conservative migration policy must welcome global tech talent

Apr 22, 2017 · Guest blog from Romilly Dennys, Executive Director of the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec)

Techtalent

Romilly Dennys, Executive Director of Coadec discusses the importance of high-skilled immigration.

It’s said that the Prime Minister didn’t think much of the Conservative 2015 manifesto effort. Echoed by one Minister who went as far to describe it as a "Christmas tree" of a document and "written without any thought to Brexit Britain."

Now Brexit Britain is the public reason behind the snap election in seven weeks time, the Prime Minister has clear water to strip back the baubles. Or as Lynton Crosby, the Conservative’s Campaign ‘Wizard of Oz’ puts it: "Get the barnacles off the boat."

A commitment that must be included is a pledge for Britain to remain open to high-skilled global talent, and continue the stem of talented founders, engineers, designers and other key employees to the tech sector.

Only last week, the co-founder of TransferWise, one of the UK’s most successful FinTech scale-ups, sound the alarm.

Standing on stage at the Government’s International FinTech Conference, Taavet Hinrikus said: "If I set up TransferWise today, I probably would not choose London. We have no idea what Brexit will mean for the city or for the country and that uncertainty is damaging."

As the Prime Minister seeks to guarantee "certainty and security," it’s vital that her manifesto sends reassurance to hard-working founders up and down the country.

As the Executive Director of Coadec, a policy group for tech startups, my daily experience is of founders and teams that possess exactly what we need to take Britain forward: tenacious problem-solvers, healthy rule-breakers, fast-thinking innovators, and ambitious minds.

Fast-growth tech startups act as a beacon for new talent, ideas and investment. For example, the automotive sector received £1.66bn of investment in 2016. While a record £6.7bn was invested in UK tech firms – more than any other European country.

But there is a catch. An entrepreneurial Britain must attract and retain global teams and minds to compete against the giants of US, China and India, as well as the fast-rising activity from European cities hoping to knock London off its perch.

TransferWise, along with Just East, King, and Farfetch, are just a few examples of the startups with global co-founders from Estonia, Portugal, Italy and Denmark, who chose London as their HQ.

But when they chose London as their global HQ, there were no restrictions under EU freedom of movement and the Government was doing all it could to encourage entrepreneurship of all shapes and sizes.

In 2011, London was the "obvious choice" to grow a global tech business and team, but now founders are questioning this assumption and our increasingly draconian visa system is only adding to the feelings of unease that threatens to deter talent, and not to the benefit of our wider society or economy.

Let's not forget that public-support for high-skilled immigration remains high and was not a reason for Brexit. Or that we face a critical skills shortage in the UK for tech talent, that cannot be solved overnight.

Increasing concern at Government policy and the bureaucratic UK visa system is one reason why in our latest report, Coadec called for a new six month (minimum) visa for high-skilled people wishing to enter the UK and set up a tech business or seek work in the tech sector.

People would need to pass an appropriate test, or have studied at a suitable institution, but we believe this is a suitable bar for tech talent that won't exclude people who haven’t been offered the opportunity of an expensive and extensive higher-education.

There is much work to be done in the months ahead. But a clear manifesto commitment to attract global talent would help put the wind in the sails for our fastest-growing startups.

Click here to read the latest Coadec report, 'A Global Britain: From Local Startups to International Markets.'

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Romilly Dennys

Romilly Dennys is the Executive Director of the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec). Coadec provides bespoke government relations and policy support to a UK-wide coalition of tech startups and scale-ups. Romilly works closely with the Government, advising on digital and tech policy and representing the UK-wide voice of the sector in Whitehall, the national media and at speaking events. She has recently completed a new report for Government: A Global Britain, from local startups to international markets, that received widespread cross-Party support and national coverage for its new high-skilled visa proposal.

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