How will Brexit and new immigration laws affect NI's tech sector?

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    With Brexit looming and less than 50 days until it finally hits the UK, the Home Office has released the final confirmed details of how the new immigration system will operate through a ‘Statement of Changes to the Immigration Rules’ spanning an impressive 514 pages.

    The new immigration system will be launched from 1 December 2020 having a direct but positive impact on the IT/tech sector for recruiting the likes of software engineers to Northern Ireland.

    Conor McCrory is an Associate Director heading up the business immigration team at leading law firm Cleaver Fulton Rankin. He presented an event at recruitment company MCS Group’s offices detailing the impact of the new immigration laws will have across Northern Ireland.

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    There will be an official end to freedom of movement within the EU with the policy statement issued by the Home Office outlining the intention to “reassert control of our borders and restore public trust” by treating EU and non-EU citizens equally under the new immigration system.

    Conor said, “the idea is that freedom of movement will be replaced with a further expansion of the Points Based System (PBS) in the UK”.


    Conor McCrory, Associate Director at Cleaver Fulton Rankin

    This new system will cater for “highly skilled” workers, students and a range of other specialist work routes, which Conor suggests will be the likes of “global leaders and innovators.”

    There will also be openings and opportunities for companies under the new immigration system who have struggled to find skilled software engineers within the local market. The rules will allow for an unlimited number of software engineers to be sourced throughout the world to live and work in Northern Ireland should the requirements be met touched on below.

    Various policy statements throughout 2020 provided an insight into the inner workings of the planned new immigration system. The Statement of Changes released on 22 October 2020 confirms many of the details contained in the policy statements and now finalises how the new immigration system will operate.

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    From 11pm on 31 December 2020 (less than two months away) freedom of movement for EU nationals will come to an abrupt end. The impact is that the new immigration system will treat both EU and non-EU nationals equally.

    This will require businesses to obtain a sponsor licence with the Home Office before the end of this year to permit for new hires to join the business from either the EU or outside the EU.


    It is estimated between 12.3% and 23.7% of the UK hospitality sector is made up of EU migrants

    In a 2017 report on labour migration by KPMG, the professional services firm found that between 12.3% and 23.7% of the UK hospitality sector's workforce was made up of EU migrants. KPMG estimated then that the hospitality sector requires 62,000 EU migrants per annum to be able to maintain current activities and to grow.

    Conor said: “The intention is fairly obvious here in that the government are looking to shift the focus towards a greater use of technology and automation by UK employers.” 

    Home Secretary Priti Patel has been pretty blunt in one of the Policy statements released “employers will need to adjust” The need for organisations to futureproof recruitment plans particularly within the IT/Tech sector has never been greater with the introduction of the new immigration system.

    Employers will require a sponsor licence with the Home Office to hire the likes of software engineers and architects moving forward.

    Changes Ahead: The new immigration system 1 December 2020

    The vast majority of the new rules will apply from 1 December 2020. Some of the key changes will include the following:

    • Lowering of the skills and qualifications required for an employment visa from RQF level 6 to RQF level 3
    • Lowering of the minimum salary threshold from £30,000 to £25,600 per annum (subject to a number of exceptions)
    • The replacement of Tier 2 (General) visa with the Skilled Worker visa category
    • EU and non-EU nationals will be treated exactly the same under the new immigration system
    • The removal of the resident labour market test for all roles
    • Quotas or limitations on the number of Skilled Worker visas will be removed
    • Increased flexibility for switching between visa categories
    • Removal of any limitations of time on extending within the Tier 2/Skilled Worker visa category
    • The minimum salary requirement for Tier 2/Skilled Workers applying for permanent residency has been abolished
    • Removal of being able to count guaranteed allowances under the Skilled Worker category but retention of the existing rules for Tier 2 (Intra Company Transfers) regarding allowances

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    Conor stated “there is definitely a liberalisation of the immigration system for the first time since the Points Based System was introduced in 2008” Conor went on to say “salary thresholds have been lowered to hire IT professionals, skill and experience levels reduced as well as the removal of quotas for the number of visas available”

    What changes are significant to the IT/Tech sector?

    The real significant changes Conor believes for IT/tech companies with the introduction of the new immigration system will be the fact all IT roles and jobs will feature on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL). This is a list the Home Office have compiled of critically short roles within the UK with no surprise IT roles featuring heavily with the list.

    The main benefit of having a role fit within the SOL is that employers can hire an IT worker for 20% less than the usual salary level required for a Skilled Worker visa. Moreover, international students on a student visa wishing to obtain a Skilled Worker visa with an IT company based in Northern Ireland can receive a salary reduction of 30% less than what is required under usual circumstances for a Skilled Worker visa.


    Employers can hire an IT worker for 20% less than the usual salary level required for a Skilled Worker visa

    This will allow SME’s all the way up to FDI companies in Northern Ireland to have greater flexibility regarding Skilled Worker visas and the required salary needed.

    The new rules will also allow IT/Tech companies to hire existing visa holders at other organisations within the UK/NI. Conor said “what we might see is a more competitive market within the IT/Tech sector now that companies know they can hire existing visa holders within the UK but also source talent globally across the world.”

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    Conor went on to say “it is no secret that hiring a local resident labour market IT professional is costly with companies offering very attractive salaries to recruit locally.

    The new rules are going to make companies think why limit ourselves to an overinflated local market for IT professionals? The likes of a skilled Indian software engineer with seven years of experience at global organisations could be hired for around £30,000 per annum comfortably.”

    Quotas for visas and a greater streamlining of the rules means that IT/Tech companies could conceivably have a new employee into the organisation within three or four weeks with the right support and guidance.

    With IT projects quickly coming about this will offer a quick method to increase team sizes to cope with client demand. Previously under the old system it could take 3 months to gain the employment visa needed to join a company in Northern Ireland.

    How do we go about bringing IT professionals and talent into Northern Ireland?

    Consider the need to apply for a sponsor licence to the Home Office. This is a requirement for any business wishing to recruit from abroad to the UK.

    Over 31,000 companies in the UK already hold a sponsor licence with the Home Office for hiring global talent. This licence can be used for recruiting both EU and non-EU nationals with no limitations to the number of employees employed through the licence.

    It is also worth remembering this licence can be used for other roles besides IT professionals such as marketing and sales executives, HR talent and the likes of accountants and financial professionals.


    Sign up to attend Conor's post-Brexit online immigration workshop here

    Conor said, “we have received a number of notifications from the Home Office in recent weeks outlining the increased processing times for sponsor licence applications. This will simply be down to the volume of new licence applications received by the sponsor licensing team at the Home Office in the run up to the introduction of the new immigration system.

    "Currently we have been working tirelessly to prepare and submit sponsor licence applications on behalf of our clients with the increased processing times.

    "The beginning of next year and for most of 2021 is going to undoubtedly result in even further delays to the processing of the sponsor licence with more companies applying than ever before due to the end of freedom of movement within the EU.”

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    Overall there has definitely been a liberalisation of the rules at an unprecedented level. There will be huge opportunities for businesses to consider recruiting globally, especially with the reduction of skills to RQF level 3 and the opening up of many new roles for a Skilled Worker visa together with the reduction of the salary level to £25,600.

    Cleaver Fulton Rankin said they have seen a surge in enquiries from businesses wishing to apply for a sponsor licence with the Home Office. TThe firm offers an initial free 30-minute consultation to any businesses that may require advice in this area.

    Contact Conor for further information via his e-mail c.mccrory@cfrlaw.co.uk

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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