UK must cast off immigration blinkers

Philip Trott says the Home Office immigrant crack-down penalises UK business. Philip Trott is an immigration partner at Bates Wells & Braithwaite.

Successive UK governments have made much play of the supposed fact that many immigrant asylum seekers are really economic migrants. Therefore, government thinking dictates, applications should be refused and asylum seekers removed from the country with haste – so removing an unsightly drain on precious public funds.

The word immigrant has somehow become dirty to this country, without us ever analysing the true value that immigrant communities can bring if they are indeed allowed to enter for purely economic reasons.

Germany, the US, and Canada – to name just a few countries – positively measure the economic benefits brought by immigrants and have programmes that encourage those who can contribute to society.

New Labour, with its support for enterprise culture, urgently needs to review who is allowed to live, work and invest in this country.

Our current economic immigration rules and work permit scheme are extremely restrictive. Only the following are allowed, with any ease, to be economically active in the UK: v those with £200,000 to invest in a business (with a promise to create two jobs for UK residents);

those with £1m (who are required to invest £750,000 in UK Government bonds, shares or loan capital in active trading UK companies);

sole representatives of overseas businesses;

writers, artists and photographers with a one year minimum track record of successfully practising their trade overseas;

senior employees coming to work here.

But this list obviously excludes a large number of deserving economic immigrants. For instance, a self-employed consultant, coming to the UK to help solve a Year 2000 problem for several small businesses, cannot work here without each UK contractor obtaining a work permit for them.

This is time-consuming and expensive for contractors, while the help needed may only be available from overseas. The UK is denying itself the freedom to attract the best foreign workers because of the inflexibility of its immigration rules.

A fresh foreign talent in the fashion industry, for instance, may want to follow in the UK footsteps of Stella McCartney or John Galliano, designers who made a splash almost immediately after leaving college. But they would not get a UK permit without two years post-graduate experience.

A UK fashion house may spot such talent, but it would be barred from exploiting it until a candidate had the required experience – by which time any budding designer may well have been tempted away by a more relaxed immigration regime.

Likewise, a UK employer who trains a foreign graduate in software design, can only give them two years work experience and cannot re-employ them for the next two years. During this time, the employee may decide to use their skills overseas.

As a member of the Immigration Law Practitioner's Association, I have made many requests to the Home Office and Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) to change the rules.

The DfEE is commercially sensitive, but only in the confines of a work permit scheme. This is in marked contrast to the Home Office, whose sole concern appears to be restricting migration to a minimum, without assessing any favourable economic, social or cultural factors.

The rules in this area have been the same since the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the Home Office is on the verge of abolishing the specialist department dealing with business and employment-related applications. But these already take up up to four months to process. No business can wait that long to exploit opportunity.

It is time the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) took over responsibility for this entire area and made it responsive to real business needs. This country is first choice for many overseas nationals because they speak English – the world's predominant commercial language. This desire should be seen as a benefit, not a detriment.