When David Cameron told business leaders recently he would do nothing to stop them hiring the best global talent, some were reassured that this heralded an easing back on his determination to limit economic migration.
The prime minister’s subsequent disclosure to parliament about exempting many “intra-company transfers” from the yearly cap on non-European workers merely added to this sense that he was listening to business.
The transfers, which let employers bring in staff from overseas offices, had emerged as the biggest point of contention for multinational companies.
But while Mr Cameron has taken a much more interventionist approach to the cap policy recently, several areas of disagreement need to be ironed out between Theresa May, home secretary, and Vince Cable, business secretary.
Much of the framework for how the cap will work appears decided, though business leaders warn “the devil will be in the delivery”.
As Ms May makes clear, the cap will be lower in 2011 than this year, but questions remain about how the restrictions are applied.
The biggest ongoing tussle is around Tier 1 visas, awarded to highly skilled people without a UK job offer.
Ms May and her team appeared to be considering ending this route for everybody except high-flying entrepreneurs and investors, claiming many Tier 1 arrivals end up in unskilled jobs. But objections from Mr Cable’s officials have stayed her hand.
“No one wants Tier 1 people coming and serving in Caffè Nero,” says a business department insider, “but we have to make sure …highly educated individuals are available.”
As a result, people seeking highly skilled visas will probably need to have earned far higher salaries in previous jobs or studied at elite universities. Those with skills in key sectors such as finance, professional services or science could be favoured.
Ms May says she will listen to business and protect Tier 2 visas – given to people with concrete job offers. But she will almost certainly insist they earn a higher salary and have degrees. This will exclude many care workers and chefs, though scientists should be given preferred treatment.
People on intra-company transfers, who make up two-thirds of non-European economic migrants each year, will be let in if they are earning more than £40,000 but banned if they make less than £24,000. Those in between may only be allowed in for a year.
There is also tension between business and the Border Agency about whether extensions to existing work permits will be included in the cap, something that would be fiercely opposed by companies.
Another potential flashpoint next week, when the government’s independent migration adviser recommends the level of the cap for next year, is that it will probably use the number of non-EU work permits awarded in 2009 to make the calculation. This means companies will get fewer visas than in 2009, even though many were locked in a hiring freeze then.
Some observers say the Migration Advisory Committee’s report on the cap will be diplomatic in tone, but will highlight the difficulties that await Mr Cameron as he tries to deliver his promise of halving net migration within three years.
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