UK visa costs will turn away those we need most

It still pains me to admit it, but the reality is sinking in fast: free movement is coming to an end.

Liberal Democrats (and others) fought a valiant fight, but the results of last year’s general election made the majority’s views crystal clear. No more free movement, tougher immigration controls.

So, after a series of delays, the Government’s Immigration Bill – the legislation that will legally put an end to free movement – is making its way through Parliament as we speak. With it will come a whole raft of immigration rule changes, the most well-known being the flagship ‘Australian-style’ points-based visa system.

The pandemic has rightly fuelled a heated debate around the impact this new system will have on those shamefully labelled as “unskilled” workers – our friends and neighbours who help teach our children, treat our sick and look after our elderly. It’s right that as a party the Liberal Democrats continue to stand up for these people, and the Prime Minister’s U-turn over payment of the NHS surcharge for frontline health workers was a good first step in the right direction.

But what about those who, on paper, we see as being at the front of the queue?

Around one third of academic staff working in our higher education sector come from abroad, and over half of those from elsewhere in the EU. But as things stand, the sheer cost and burden of entering the UK threatens to turn away the scientists, researchers and innovators who make an invaluable contribution to our national health and wellbeing. And it will be other countries that benefit from their knowledge and expertise.

Credit where credit is due, the Government has worked with the science sector and others to develop the new ‘Global Talent’ visa category that allows talented and promising individuals in specific research and innovation sectors to work in the UK for up to five years without restrictions such as a sponsor, language tests or a minimum salary threshold.

But the upfront cost of obtaining one of these visas can total more than £2600, compared to around £300 for a similar visa in France, £250 in the US and £0 in Japan. If, god forbid, you want to move here with your spouse or children, those costs skyrocket further.

A PhD does not a millionaire make, but these are the people who will be absolutely vital to our post-Covid-19 recovery. What message do these sky-high fees send to overseas talent, and how can we truly claim to be a global, outward looking Britain if we’re charging up to six times more than other nations for a visa? UK science is losing its competitive edge, and right now that’s the last thing we need.

With a £22bn a year commitment to R&D in the March budget, we’ve already seen encouraging signs that this is a government willing to invest in R&D like never before. But if we can no longer attract the talent we need to fill our labs and ‘do’ the science, how will we ever get a meaningful return on the tax payers’ investment?

Dominic Cummings is a self-declared disciple of research and innovation, and if we’ve learnt one thing over the past few weeks, it’s that he certainly has the Prime Minister’s ear. Now is the time to step in and make the case for ensuring the UK remains a welcoming place for people around the world to choose to bring their specialist skills.

Tim Farron once spoke about how his belief in the values of the European Union stemmed not from some deep-rooted belief in a pan-continental federal state, but from patriotism. As Liberals we despair at the damage Brexit will wreak because of our love for this country and for the people who come here from around the world to make it great.

It may be internationalist, it may be patriotic. But to me, bringing visa costs in line with our international competitors is just common sense.

And right now isn’t that what we’re being asked to use more of?

* Daniel Callaghan has previously worked in Parliament for Tim Farron and Christine Jardine. He now advises on public affairs at the Royal Society

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  • We don’t even have free movement in the country at the moment. To get a train you have to wear a stupid face nappy and the government is deciding who you can see and at what distance as well as when you can get a haircut. What we’ve learned in the last few weeks is that villages and small towns will turn into super suspicious Hot Fuzz land at the drop of a hat, that real authoritarianism is easy to impose as long as you present it as protective and that opposition MPs are too intent on staying in line to even contemplate the possibility that the pandemic response has been a huge overreaction with dire social consequences.

  • Peter Martin 13th Jun '20 - 10:50am

    @ Glenn,

    “…you have to wear a stupid face nappy….”

    Give it a rest, Glenn! None of us are particularly happy but we’ll do what is being asked of us in the interests of reducing the infection rate. Whinging about it is helping anyone.

  • Peter Martin 13th Jun '20 - 10:51am

    I meant to say “isn’t helping anyone”.

  • Peter Martin
    No I won’t give it a rest precisely because asserting that we are saving lives doesn’t prove we are. Britain, Belgium, Spain, Italy and France each have higher death rates than Japan, South Korea, Sweden and Belarus combined. None of the later countries decided to put their populations under house arrest. Not even every state in America as followed the same path and they don’t have higher death rates than those that did.

  • Keith Selmes 13th Jun '20 - 9:24pm

    “the results of last year’s general election made the majority’s views crystal clear” is not correct. The majority voted for opposition parties with quite different policies. The Conservatives got an 80 seat majority in parliament, but most people voted for policies diametrically opposite to theirs. Just recently an opinion poll found a small majority would prefer to be in the EU. Not a very stable situation. Certainly the government has a clear majority in the house, and in theory can do as it pleases, but it doesn’t have majority support from the voters.

  • >But the upfront cost of obtaining one of these visas can total more than £2600..
    Bargain! I spent over £1600 back in the !980’s on a failed US green card application. The brightest and best will pay if the rewards are comenserate – UK graduate wages are going to have to go up…

  • Antony Watts 14th Jun '20 - 9:19am

    You’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Free movement is not based on who is useful to us, or who we don’t want. It would be if we were open to the world – whic of course is what “they” want, Global Britain” and all that.

    No, free movement results from nations adopting the same laws though treaties such as the European Lisbon Treaty. Once you have that commonality accepted and implemented, free movement becomes an inevitable outcome. As do the other three EU freedoms – goods, services and capital.

    Our neurotic drive to be global is a self destructive belief that such independence is the valid future – the famous sovereign future they go on about. It is not.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jun '20 - 6:47pm

    @ Antony Watts,

    “No, free movement results from nations adopting the same laws though treaties ….”

    If nations sign enough Treaties and adopt enough of the same laws then they are in effect becoming one country. One country means one government. Which is where the EU falls short. There’s not enough support for it anywhere in the EU. The old EEC wasn’t perfect but it worked well enough. The EU has pushed the union several steps closer and has got itself stuck in an unstable betwixt and between state.

    It needs to move forward to a genuine political union with a Federal Govt and a common system of taxation and spending, ie Guy Verhofstadt’s United States of Europe, or it needs to take a few steps back and accept that ‘Europe’ is a looser confederation of independent nation states.

    The difficulty is in doing either. There’s just as many pushing one way as the other.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Jun '20 - 9:26am

    Let’s first make optimal use of our home grown talent with excellent education and training for all. Then we can consider who we want to admit to our shores. I’ts useful to distinguish between asylum seekers and true immigration – those wanting to come here. It’s fair to make it easier for those who will benefit us. We also need a fair and compassionate asylum process that allows us to help those fleeing persecution and their immediate family. Visa requirements should cover costs with exceptions for those in true need.

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