Summary:

Critics of changes to U.K. immigration rules — which eradicated an entire class of visa used by startups — are missing the point, according to Tech City chief Eric van der Kleij. He says half of all visas for skilled immigrant workers are still going unclaimed each year.

Eric van der Kleij, London Tech City CEO

Critics of the U.K.’s recent changes to immigration rules — which introduced new startup visas for entrepreneurs, but eradicated an entire class of visa used by engineers — are not taking full advantage of the system, according to Tech City chief Eric van der Kleij.

Speaking to GigaOM, the CEO of Tech City Investment Organization — the government arm charged with boosting London’s credentials as “the digital capital of Europe” — said that while the caps imposed on the number of skilled workers who can migrate to Britain have caused controversy, the reality is that applications for residency have been massively undersubscribed.

“They [startups] tell me they’re worried about the skills shortage and the type of visa that you hire talented, skilled people on,” he told me. “They’re worried because they see caps of just 20,000 people a year.”

“So I asked the question: how many have been used? Last year half of the 20,000 have been used — half of them not used.”

His comments are an attempt to head off complaints about migration that many feel is having a negative impact on Britain’s burgeoning startup scene.

Those criticisms began when the government rushed through its British “startup visa”, allowing entrepreneurs and investors with substantial financial backing to apply for the right to live and work in Britain. But in bringing in the new rules, the government eradicated the startup visa’s predecessor, the general Tier 1 visa — a category which applied to highly skilled migrant workers without a corporate sponsor.

Instead, previous Tier 1 applicants were directed towards the broader Tier 2 visa — a more restrictive version, similar to America’s H-1B, and which has an annual cap of just 20,700 immigrants.

At the time, this caused a variety of concerns. At Techcrunch, a prominent startup lawyer claimed the new rules “were only halfway there”, and there was consternation from those who would have previously been able to migrate to the U.K. after studying there.

Meanwhile industry leaders worried that the cap could have far-reaching implications across a range of jobs and industries.

Full approval

But van der Kleij said emphatically that concerns about the cap were misdirected, since there was no evidence that applicants were being turned away because of the limitation on numbers.

“People that I hugely regard were tweeting “this is madness!” — but I am able to ask the question of why is there a cap, and how many were approved,” he said. “I asked more questions, like how many were turned down. Every single one that was qualified was approved. “

However, he did admit that an early version of the rules — which placed monthly quotas on companies who were sponsoring new applicants, were “horrible” and had to be rapidly reworked.

“At the changeover there was a horrible cap per company, and that was badly handled. That was at the beginning of last year, and companies were absolutely right to shout about.”

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