Theresa May on Thursday told an audience of European financial bosses that government plans to remove doctors and nurses from Britain’s restrictive visa regime would clear the way for banks to hire more professionals from outside the European Economic Area.
However, business groups were lukewarm about the change, which they described as a welcome first step towards reform of the “Tier 2” visa system for skilled professionals but short of the comprehensive changes needed.
Demand to bring in skilled workers from outside the EEA has meant that every month since December applications for Tier 2 visas, which allow in only 20,700 applicants a year, have been oversubscribed. This has prevented thousands of medical staff from taking up positions in the UK, but also caused difficulties for other industries, including information technology and finance.
Mrs May told a European financial services dinner in Whitehall that the removal of doctors and nurses from the Tier 2 visa system would have the welcome side-effect of allowing the City to recruit more global talent. Announcing the changes on Thursday, Sajid Javid, home secretary, said that currently about 40 per cent of Tier 2 visas available went to NHS staff each year.
The change means that the roughly 8,000 visas currently issued to doctors, nurses and other health professionals each year should become available to other sectors.
However, three business groups — the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce — called for more far-reaching reforms.
Seamus Nevin, director of policy for the Institute of Directors, said Mr Javid’s announcement was “great news” and a signal that the Home Office was finally listening to calls for change.
But he called for wider reforms, including a rethink of the policy to cut net immigration to below 100,000 a year.
“We must get to a point where immigration policy is based on more than trying to hit an arbitrary net migration target,” said Mr Nevin.
Details of the new programme — expected to come into force in July — will be announced in a written parliamentary statement on Friday.
Figures published this week showed that between November 6 last year and April 5 this year 2,360 visa applications of 3,599 submitted by non-European doctors were rejected because of the cap on visa numbers. Of the 3,105 applications by information technology professionals in the same period, 1,946 were also rejected.
However, there was concern on Thursday from business groups and some immigration lawyers that the reform might not free up enough spaces to relieve all the pressure on the Tier 2 visa system.
Simon Kenny, an immigration specialist at Eversheds Sutherland, the law firm, said the exclusion of NHS staff from the Tier 2 system would only partially resolve the problem.
Because visas have been rationed since December mainly on the basis of applicants’ salaries, the minimum salary to obtain a visa in some months has been as high as £60,000. Without NHS staff, the minimum salary would have been lower but would still have been £40,000 to £45,000, according to Mr Kelly.
“This change would not have a major impact on qualification of other employees,” he said.