London: Gordon Brown says he wants the brightest people in the world to come live in Britain. Unless they are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell, all of whom would be excluded under the government’s new immigration rules.
The founders of Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc. and Dell Inc. are ineligible for the top tier of the UK visa system, the one aimed at attracting highly skilled people, because they lack college degrees. The rules, which didn’t require the UK parliament’s approval, are under attack by lawyers and lawmakers who say the country risks excluding the kinds of people it needs.
“It’s a dumbing-down,” said Sophie Barrett-Brown, head of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association. “If you’re a 20-something American with a bachelor’s degree and you earn £26,000 (Rs22,49,000) a year, you’re a high-skilled migrant. You can come in, but Bill Gates can’t.”
The prime minister is trying to reduce the inflow of immigrants after the arrival of more than 500,000 a year for the past five years. The record numbers since the Labour government took office 11 years ago have put a strain on schools, police and hospitals.
This year and next, the government is replacing 80 separate categories under which immigrants could apply for a visa with a five-tier, points-based system. It gives credit for education and previous wages, though not for accomplishment or potential. It is the biggest change to the immigration system since the 1960s.
“Everyone wants degrees, but many entrepreneurs don’t have degrees,” said Keith Vaz, a Labour lawmaker who heads the parliament’s home affairs committee, which oversees domestic policy. He pointed out that UK entrepreneur Richard Branson quit school at age 16 to start a magazine and now is worth £3.1 billion, controlling London-based Virgin Group Ltd’s aircraft, phones, Internet and train network.
Tier 1, which opened in February, is aimed at doctors, academics, computer experts and bankers. Later this year, Tier 2 and Tier 5 will begin, covering employees with job offers and temporary workers. Tier 4 for students begins in 2009, and tier 3, for low skilled workers, after that.
“Unskilled workers coming from countries outside the European Union who are not needed by our economy will not be welcome,” Brown told a panel of lawmakers on 3 July. “The points system deals with exactly the problem.”
Britain’s immigrants already are among the most educated entering industrial nations. In 2007, more than 38% had university degrees, compared with 27% in France, 26% in the US and 17% in Germany, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Under the new rules, applicants for tier 1 “highly skilled” visas must have a college degree, no matter what else they’ve done. They also must show past earnings and speak and write English to the standard of a C-grade at the General Certificate of Secondary Education exams that British 16-year-olds take. More than a third of pupils in the UK failed to reach that standard in 2007.
“We are controlling the number of migrants coming to the UK,” the Border Agency said in an emailed statement. “Under the points system, only those with the skills that Britain needs can come to work or study. Tier 1 of the points system will enable us to attract the most talented migrants who have the most to contribute to the economy.”
The Confederation of British Industry, or CBI, has raised concerns about other parts of the new system, especially Tier 2 for migrants with job offers. Those measures require employers to monitor migrant staff, reporting unexplained absences from work and even a change in their mobile phone numbers.
“It’s very nit-picky,” said Neil Carberry, CBI’s head of pensions and employment, arguing that the restrictions are aimed at a nonexistent problem. “Tier 1 and 2 isn’t where people abscond.”
Vaz’s committee, drawing members from each of the three main political parties, this month began an investigation into complaints that the new system is likely to hurt businesses.
“It was introduced without proper consultation of the very communities that were going to be affected,” Vaz said. “They’re just worried about numbers. The problem is with illegal immigration. The way they’re dealing with it is trying to stop legal immigration.”