Immigration, UK tech and Brexit

Gemma Hyslop, May 21, 2019 3 min read

As the dust begins to settle around the numerous parliamentary votes on Brexit (for the moment at least) the UK finds itself with a new proposed Exit Date from the European Union of 31 October 2019.

The momentary lull in proceedings allows us to take stock of the Brexit process to date, and consider its impact on the UK’s digital tech industry and the access to talent.

The unresolved Brexit situation has complicated forward planning for most industries. It would seem that the digital tech industry is not immune from that, with TechUK observing that ‘Brexit uncertainty is imposing more costs on tech businesses and driving jobs and investment away from the UK’. Conversely however, others have observed that investment in the digital tech sector remains strong, with UK scaleup investment increasing 61% between 2017 and 2018, and UK AI investment increasing six-fold between 2014 and 2018, suggesting that the UK’s pending departure from the EU is not a dissuasive factor for such funding.

It would seem that opinions vary on the economic effect of Brexit on digital tech, and the immigration impact is no different.

Some will point to the UK government’s commitment to attracting and retaining the brightest and the best migrants in this field by establishing the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa, which aims to bring both current and future leaders in a range of fields, including digital tech to help drive the development of the UK tech ecology.

Successful applicants must receive an endorsement from Tech Nation. The UK government further underscored its commitment to this visa category in December 2017, by doubling the number of available endorsements from 1,000 to 2,000.

At the same time, they introduced an accelerated route to settlement for Tier 1 Exceptional Talent migrants reducing the required residency period from five to three years (though those endorsed under Tier 1 Exceptional Promise must still meet a five year residence requirement.)

However, there are equally strong exponents of the argument that the UK government’s Brexit process has rendered the situation of European migrants in the UK uncertain during the negotiations. Whilst some European nationals report unease in the UK following the June 2016 referendum, recent research from Tech Nation suggests that the UK remains an attractive prospect for tech specialists, with the UK employing 5% of global tech scaleup talent, ahead of Japan, France and Indonesia.

The UK government have introduced a custom-made EU Settlement Scheme, to allow European nationals to confirm their right to work and reside in the UK.

As it stands, any European national resident in the UK by 31 October 2019 should be able to settle in the UK long term, provided that they make the appropriate application through the EU Settlement Scheme, do not have excessive absences from the UK (no more than six months per year) and do not have a serious criminal record.

If a Withdrawal Agreement is reached, the aforementioned date of 31 October 2019 is likely to extend to 31 December 2020, as free movement would effectively remain in place until that date, after which the UK government’s new immigration system will come into place. How that new scheme will cater to the tech industry remains to be seen, though all signs point to the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa route remaining in place, whilst changes to other work permit routes may well facilitate the further growth of the industry.

The new system will never be as simple as free movement, but there are strong indicators that the new Skills Based System will be easier and faster than the current Points Based System.

So, as the Brexit negotiations continues, so it would seem will the debate around its impact on immigration to the UK, though one thing is sure – the immigration system will have to remain responsive to the needs of the tech industry if the UK is to remain at the forefront of this field.

Talent & Skills, Tech Nation Visa