How will the proposed new immigration rules impact the life sciences sector?

Written on 6 Feb 2020

A core pledge by the Conservative Party during the 2019 General Election campaign was the promise to end the free movement of EU nationals and to "control the borders". There was a promise to introduce "an Australian points-based system" – which failed to acknowledge the current points-based system that has been in place since 2008. One of the cornerstones of the policy is to introduce a minimum salary for sponsored employees of £30,000. At present, this is £20,800.

The starting salary for a clinical scientist in the NHS is anywhere between £26,250–£35,250, while biomedical scientists start on £22,000–£28,500.

To date, there is scant detail regarding the proposed new visa process, the qualifying criteria, or mechanisms. Life sciences, in particular, is a sector that has an acute shortage of skilled workers and, like every other sector, is at risk of the UK becoming unattractive to overseas talent due to the uncertainty.

According to a report from PwC in 2019, UK life sciences contributed £30.7 billion to the economy in 2015, providing an estimated tax contribution of £8.6 billion to the exchequer. Each life sciences job supports 2.5 jobs elsewhere in the UK economy, meaning the sector supports a total of 482,000 jobs.

In the last few weeks however, the UK government announced plans to scrap the £30,000 minimum salary requirement and issued a press release announcing an expanded existing visa route to specifically attract scientists. The Exceptional Talent visa programme is to be revised to remove the current cap of 2,000 per year and to double the number of endorsing bodies. The announcement is very short on detail, stating simply that the new visa system will begin on 20 February and will be managed by the UK Research and Innovation Agency, which funds government research, rather than by the Home Office. But it remains to be seen how attractive and user-friendly this visa route will be.

There appears to be a chasm between the intention in the Conservative Party manifesto statement that aspired to make "the UK to be a magnet for the best and brightest, with special immigration routes for those who will make the biggest contribution" and the uncertainty of how young skilled employees can come and work in the UK.

The government has proposed that an entire new work visa process will be in place for use by 1 January 2021. Some might say that is more than a little optimistic.

What businesses can do now is to rely on the certainty that the current work visas routes afford. The Tier 2 process is effective. Although there is a limit of 20,700 "work permits" per year, a large number of applicants are excluded from that calculation. In the most recent data, 2,945 certificates were available for issue in December 2019 and 1,148 granted. UK government statistics do not indicate how many requests were refused, but there is clear evidence that there is a surplus of available work permits in the system.

Companies should act now with confidence that the process is clear and reliable.