Posted on September 20, 2018 by staff

Brexit ‘opportunity not threat’ for tech sector, says MEP


Sadly, commitments in the Brussels mean I cannot join you at BusinessCloud’s event on October 10 ‘The Tech Recruitment Timebomb’ in London.

Tech and immigration are two topics I am most passionate about and I would have loved to be there to defuse some of those ‘timebomb’ fears.

Most people I know in tech are liberal thinkers, modern minded, creative and above all, tolerant.

Many take a global outlook rather than restrict themselves to a European perspective, so I am a little concerned when I read that there are some in the tech community who believe that their businesses will be starved of talent post-Brexit.

I believe that Brexit offers us the opportunity to develop a fairer immigration system and move away from the current system which gives priority to mostly-white EU citizens over mostly non-white non-EU citizens. At best this is passport discrimination, at worst it can be viewed as racist.  Given the current concerns over migration, this leads to caps on non-EU migrants and crude immigration targets.

Free of the EU rules, I hope we can develop a fairer immigration based on the needs of the British economy – including the tech sector – rather than crude caps on non-EU migrants.

So what is a fair immigration system? I believe there are three types – but only one balances the needs of companies with political support for immigration.

The first is to close our borders and to let no-one in. Most companies and most reasonable people know this would be an act of economic self-harm since not all vacancies could be filled by the unemployed – despite the improvements in training offered – or by technology.

The second would be to let everyone in. In fact, the UK had an open door policy in the Blair years. Andrew Neather, a former advisor to Blair admitted this when he wrote that Labour’s plan “to open up the UK to mass migration” was a deliberate attempt “to rub the Right’s nose in diversity”.

The result was a backlash as white working class Labour voters deserted the party and voted BNP. Not only did we see BNP councillors elected, but in 2009, these former Labour voters helped propel two BNP MEPs into the European Parliament. As I remarked at the time, as in other countries, abandoned socialists crossed the thin line between socialism and national socialism.

Sadly, open door migration leads to hostility towards immigration and immigrants. Seeing National Socialists getting elected is terrifying if you are from an ethnic minority community or Jewish.

The third solution for fair migration is to treat all potential immigrants the same, regardless of where they come from. Then we should decide immigration policy on what skills gaps they fill. An exception should be made on humanitarian grounds for genuine refugees fleeing persecution.

Let’s look at a points-based systems where the criteria are clear and regularly reviewed, say every six months, as certain sectors fill their skills gaps while others open up. And we could look to technology to help us.

With the advent of big data, computers can scan jobs boards, university application data and economic performance data in fractions of a second and assess where the skills shortages lay.

Smart automated systems can also make complex tasks much simpler. Such as today’s labyrinthine application systems for visas, often still designed for an age of filing cabinets and paper forms.

Today we can access academic qualifications online. We can look at whether someone’s personal history is real or not. Did they really live where they say they did? In some countries, some credit agencies even scan Facebook for credibility indicators to issue credit cards. If someone is willing for their references to be checked we can increasingly do that.

And better, more credible data would also make explaining immigration policy easier. Instead of crude targets we could show how certain sectors or industries or companies which genuinely need to fill vacancies from overseas are able to attract staff to help our economy grow.

Of course, there will always be some who want no immigration and claim that immigrants take jobs (even though these may be jobs they would not want to do themselves). However, I believe that a points system based on the needs of the economy could change the narrative on immigration from a crude focus on numbers to filling the skills gaps to grow our economy so that we are all better off.

We should acknowledge that there are genuine concerns to be addressed as to whether rather than filling vacancies, immigration would reduce the wages and standard of living for existing workers in some parts of the country, as we saw after 10 countries joined the EU in 2004.

However, if we move to a genuinely fair and transparent immigration policy post-Brexit, no longer giving preference to mostly white Europeans, as a country we can be seen to have learned the lessons from both the EU referendum and the shoddy treatment of the Windrush generation.

I read recently in The Times how Signal Media, one of the brightest new stars in the tech constellation, recently fell foul of the current system. After an unsuccessful search domestically, they found the brilliant young software engineer, with a rare skill they needed, in India.

After a a long and anxious wait, the Home Office turned down her visa application because she fell foul of the arbitrary limit on skilled workers from outside the EU.

Only last week (Sept 18) the Migration Advisory Committee, in its report commissioned by the Government, said the limit should go post-Brexit and no preference should be given to EU citizens.

For sectors such as tech which rely heavily on talent and expertise from abroad, this will be an opportunity not a threat. You will be able to recruit the best from all over the world – including EU – instead  of effectively having your choice severely restricted.

I am pushing for such a fair immigration system with government. When I wrote a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, arguing for a fairer points-based system, I received messages from ministers agreeing with me. Let’s hope that the report from the Migration Advisory Committee is a significant step towards a fairer immigration system that attracts the best talent from across the world, rather than from one small corner of the globe.