Tijen Ahmet: Relaxing scientific visas, a sign of better things to come?

Just when the UK business community was coming to terms with the prospect of a future without free movement, a political shakeup and new prime minister means that things could be changing once again.

Since stepping into his new role, Boris Johnson appears to be on a path of systematically softening some of the stronger immigration policies put in place by his predecessor. His pledge to remove the cap on tier 1 exceptional talent visas, is intended to protect the pedigree of the UK’s scientific community in the event of a no deal Brexit. By weakening the measures, Johnson’s government hope to retain the image of the UK as a premier country for global talent to conduct scientific research.

This move follows further recent announcements which hint at a more lenient post-Brexit immigration system than was previously showcased under Theresa May’s government. The new prime minister has mooted removing the annual cap on migration, as well as putting in place an amnesty for illegal immigrants in the UK.

Across the board, these moves can only be taken as a positive sign and whilst it’s unlikely that free movement between the UK and EU will ever function in the future as it does currently, any move to make the country an attractive place for migrants to live and work is essential.

The scientific community will no doubt welcome Boris Johnson’s most recent announcement, but the Government must not disregard numerous other bespoke industries and sectors that heavily rely on EU migrant workers to survive.

The country finds itself on the brink of a very different existence and the sense of uncertainty pervading all areas of society still remains. From an employment perspective, switching off access to both skilled and unskilled EU talent will no doubt be very detrimental, and many businesses will find themselves with gaps in their workforces.

As has been the case throughout the Brexit process, preparation is vital. However, shifts in the UK’s stance on post-Brexit immigration do risk becoming more of a hindrance than a help. Whilst a potential softening of rules for the post-2021 system is positive, if legislation is going to change significantly then businesses need to know sooner rather than later. This is especially important if any of Boris Johnson’s proposed changes affect the way in which UK organisations will be able to attract and recruit EU nationals in future.

Regardless of the situation, understanding the makeup of a workforce is important, and businesses should be conducting thorough reviews of their own employment profile, in order to identify the numbers of EU workers currently employed. By using this insight, plans can be put in place to help these workers secure their right to live and work in the UK apply for settled status under the UK’s EU Settlement Scheme, if appropriate.

Despite the recent moves by government to ease some of the stricter immigration policies proposed by Theresa May, it will without doubt become more difficult for employers to employ foreign workers. As an accompaniment to this, there will likely be far greater scrutiny on employers around the types of foreign labour they take up in their organisations after 2021. In anticipation, employers must ensure that they are correctly carrying out right-to-work checks for every new employee. These should of course be undertaken at the beginning of a new employment contract, but for an extra layer of protection, carrying out rolling reviews on existing employees would be wise. Even now, the fines for employing workers without the correct documentation can be severe.

Above all, in a world where the UK is set to become a more difficult place for foreign migrants to live and work, the benefits for employers of offering as much support and guidance as possible cannot be underestimated. Whilst the specific types of reassurance may vary from organisation to organisation, simple steps such as emphasising workers’ value and building strong relationships can go a long way in ensuring that employees feel valued at a time of extreme change.

As well as helping migrant employees currently living and working in the UK, employers would be well-advised to begin exploring other global talent markets, especially if their businesses rely on recruiting for skilled positions. There are several locations around the world which have gained reputations as hubs for particular skillsets, for example India and the USA for computer science professionals and Russia for aeronautical engineers.

Tapping into these markets may take significant time and resource, so businesses should start looking further afield than Europe sooner rather than later. Especially if they foresee specific skills gaps in their post-Brexit workforces.

Even though the 31 October deadline is looming, it’s still early days for Boris Johnson. There is much work to be done on all areas of the Brexit process, and settling on a new and functional immigration system, which works for both businesses and individuals, is just part of the challenge.