Less than a year before the UK leaves the European Union, there have been fears of an exodus of European and other international workers to rival tech hubs in Europe and further afield. However, government investment in Tech City UK, combined with some significant tech-specific immigration rule changes, offer a more positive vision of the future. The UK may just be stealing a march on Silicon Valley, as the impact of President Trump’s uncompromising immigration and ‘Buy American, Hire American’ policies start to bite.
Theresa May’s recent fresh investment of £21m into Tech City UK by 2021 was welcome. But the more significant change may well be the increase in Tech City’s ability to offer access to the much sought after ‘Exceptional Talent’ route to a UK visa – and parallel changes encouraging global tech stars to settle permanently.
Tech City UK will now be able to issue up to 2,000 ‘endorsements’ – allowing foreign nationals who are recognised leaders or rising stars in the tech sector to access the Exceptional Talent route. In practice, these 2,000 are shared with four other bodies authorised as gatekeepers to this route. However, Tech City UK was previously restricted to just 200 per year.
The Tech City UK scheme puts individuals on a par with wealthy tech organisations when it comes to securing immigration permission in the UK and is particularly aimed at tech entrepreneurs with special skills and experience in up-scaling, investing in and developing new digital technologies.
The latest changes are clearly aimed at encouraging high quality tech applicants at pursuing an application under the Tech Nation Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route run by Tech City UK, rather than the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) route which the Home Office views as a category at risk of misuse, or the traditional sponsored worker route, Tier 2.
“First Come, First Served”
Endorsements are allocated on a ‘first come, first served’ basis following submission of a detailed online form and various supporting materials. Two subcategories of endorsement exist: ‘exceptional talent’ – for applicants who can demonstrate they are proven experts or leaders in their field; and ‘exceptional promise’ – for rising stars earmarked as future tech rainmakers. Applicants awarded an endorsement may apply for entry clearance or leave to remain for any duration up to the maximum five years.
Even more interesting is the Home Office’s January 2018 move to offer an accelerated route to permanent settlement in the UK for individuals endorsed as having ‘exceptional talent’ (as distinguished from ‘exceptional promise’). This change offers a reduction in the usual qualifying period of residence from five years to three years, with eligibility to apply for naturalisation in five years as opposed to six years. This really does seem to be a concerted effort by government to encourage tech stars to make the UK their home. It will be interesting to see how the contrast with noises coming out of the White House impacts the UK tech sector.
The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) category offers other advantages over alternative immigration routes, including no minimum maintenance funds or English language proficiency requirements to enter the route which are particular boons for applicants from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In addition, time spent in the UK under the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route can be amalgamated with previous residence accrued under the Tier 1 (Investor), Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) and Tier 2 categories towards the qualifying period, meaning that migrants who successfully switch into Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) with endorsement under the exceptional talent subcategory from any of these categories are able to count time already accrued in the UK, with no minimum qualifying period in the exceptional talent category at the time of applying for settlement.
Tech City already saw a fourfold increase in applications in 2017 compared with the previous year. These latest changes seem certain to deliver an unprecedented level of applications for the expanded number of endorsements Tech City can hand out from this month [April 2018]. These new ‘tech visas’ are a powerful tool for Tech City UK to deploy in ensuring talent is captured and retained in one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors.