Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:05 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons) 1:05 pm, 6th September 2018

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I agree with what she says. It should be in everyone’s interests that we facilitate bringing bright and great people to our country, whatever level they are at, because that benefits our economy, employment, our ability to fund our public services and so on. Those who come here need to be able to travel outside the UK for research purposes without it harming that individual’s ability to apply for indefinite leave to remain. Vicky Ford was very persistent in pursuing that point during our inquiry. If spending time abroad on field trips and collaborating with others is part of someone’s research, they should not be penalised if they decide they want to make this country their home for the longer term.

The system also has to be efficient, and streamlined, with a low-cost application process for employees and employers. We currently have some of the highest visa fees in the world, which can be off-putting and burdensome. The cost of a tier 2 visa for a researcher, their spouse and three children will rise this month to £21,000, a fee that is way beyond what many people involved in research can pay. We argued in our report that the Home Office should not just use salary as a proxy for skill —that point was made by Jeremy Lefroy. It is a sad truth that some high-skilled jobs in research are relatively poorly paid, and the system needs to recognise that. This country should not do itself harm by denying those people the ability to come here and thereby benefit our economy.

The specifics of our proposals fell into two parts: for short-term migration to the UK, we proposed that the Government establish visa-free and permit-free work in the UK for up to 180 days for skilled workers. Eligibility should be verified at the border with proof of intent to leave within that period, and a letter from the employer describing the nature of the skilled work. For long-term migration, we outlined a five-year skilled work permit for those with either an offer of employment—with a minimum salary that reflects the going rate for the job, as well as regional and public or private sector differences in salary—or third-party sponsorship, such as from a university.

There are precedents for these approaches, both at home and abroad. For short-term migration, we currently allow visitors from Canada and the USA to visit the UK to do academic research, attend conferences and undertake training for up to six months without a visa. In the US, the ESTA—electronic system for travel authorisation—visa-waiver programme allows entry for business or tourism for up to 90 days. For longer-term migration, the French have a “talent passport” model, which includes a scientist category under which researchers who have a hosting agreement and the equivalent of a master’s degree or above can apply for a visa for up to four years, with family members also able to apply for residence permits and to work.

A report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust analysed the visa systems of 22 countries and found that half of them have a dedicated immigration route or provision for researchers. Other countries do it to support science and research; we can do it as well. There is no reason why we cannot. We suggest that the Government would need to undertake further work with the science and technology community to co-create a system at the detailed level, but our proposals show the way forward. The Committee and the community have worked hard to be constructive and proactive on this issue, and those are the qualities that I expect to see in the Government response, when it arrives.

During our inquiry, we also uncovered opportunities for the Government to make changes now, unilaterally, to improve the current non-EEA immigration system while negotiations with the EU are ongoing. We saw a need to revise and clarify the criteria for tier 1 exceptional talent visas, which currently have low take-up. Some 2,000 visas are available each year, but there are currently only around 400 applications, which is way short of the potential capacity. Many believe that that part of the system is not working because the exceptional-talent criteria are too restrictive.

We called on the Government to reinstate the tier 1 post-study work visas, so that talented international graduates who have chosen to study at a UK higher education institution are able to contribute further to the UK economy by working here for up to two years. Our call has been supported this week by Universities UK, and a ComRes poll found that 72% of people think that international students should be able to stay to work for a year or more after graduation, with 52% in support of their being able to stay for two years or more.

Finally, we recommended that the Government remove the cap on tier 2 general visas. They have removed the cap for doctors and nurses, which frees up space for engineers and other professionals, but why should there be an arbitrary limit on skilled workers more generally? Surely it makes sense to encourage them to come to this country.

The Government’s response to our second report is due later this month, but I hope we will get a flavour of what to expect from the Minister’s response today. I hope that he will recognise the urgency of the need to arrange new immigration rules. The planned transition period gives us some time to develop an immigration system, but universities have said that they need two years’ notice of changes to immigration processes so that the prospective staff and students can prepare properly. I hope the Minister will be able to give us an update on agreeing an accord on science and innovation, which has been discussed for many months now.

Many other related issues are not covered in detail in the two reports, but I suspect that Members will wish to raise them in the debate. Examples include the Government’s decision to ask pharmaceutical companies to stockpile medicines as preparation for no deal; the future regulation of medicines when the European Medicines Agency moves from London to Amsterdam; and concerns about Euratom in respect of nuclear research and the availability of medical radioisotopes, which are essential tools for diagnostic tests and the treatment of cancer and other diseases.

To conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker—I am sorry to have tried your patience—I hope that, as a result of both reports and today’s debate, the Government will work to secure the accord on science and innovation as quickly as possible, and include information on how they expect the people element to work for highly skilled workers. It is crucial that we do all we can to maintain the UK’s pre-eminent position as a science and innovation superpower. It is in everyone’s interest. Moreover, provisions need to be made to protect science in the event of a no-deal scenario. I would like to hear what action the Minister has taken on that, as well.