Dr Ali Demirbag is the Chairman of the Association of Turkish Speaking Health Professionals in the UK.
In its attempts to define a new vision for the British economy, the signals coming from Boris Johnson’s government are encouraging. It is reigniting the Northern Powerhouse and focusing on growth in former Labour-voting areas that switched to the Conservatives.
But with £65 billion earned in foreign direct investment last year, it’s clear we must do everything we can facilitate international business deals to keep the British economy moving and growing. But maintaining the status quo in the UK business visa system risks undermining Boris’s vision of Britain “open for business”. The UK business visa system is too expensive and too burdensome. Home Office rules are driving entrepreneurs and business leaders into the arms of our international competitors like France and Germany, with the untold millions they would otherwise have invested right here in the UK.
Face to face contact remains a vitally important part of business for entrepreneurs. But I have seen first-hand countless foreign business leaders – who really want to invest millions into the British economy – driven away time and again by the countless hoops they have to jump, the forms they have to fill and the eye-watering fees they have to pay. In the end, they are often turned down by the Home Office for the most baffling of reasons.
Britain has shown leadership in the past on visa and immigration reform, evident from its constructive cooperation with my native Turkey. The UK is the only European country to fully implement the Ankara Agreement, which encouraged Turkish nationals who set-up businesses in the UK. But in recent years, the government has backtracked and tightened restrictions.
This approach makes little sense because Turkey is rapidly climbing up the ranks to become one of Britain’s biggest export markets. It is a very large non-EU market within close proximity, endowed with an economy growing about twice as fast as the EU. It is a natural economic and commercial partner for post-Brexit Britain.
The UK is the most attractive investment destination for the Turkish business world, according to data from the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEiK). Britain saw an increase in its share of Turkey’s growing outward investments last year, which at $6 billion, bucked global downward trends. There is plenty of scope to encourage more bilateral investment with Turkey through visa reform, as there will be with other countries post-Brexit.
While immigration was a key concern for British voters, politicians and policy makers must differentiate the need to control long-term immigration with the economic imperative of allowing business leaders and entrepreneurs to more freely visit the UK, so that they can invest and secure opportunities in partnership with British companies.
A post-Brexit visa regime must allow – even encourage – the brightest and the best from all over the world to travel more freely to the UK on business. This will ensure we have the right investment and the very best talent pool to serve our industries and public services.
The Home Office replaced the discontinued ‘Tier 1 Entrepreneur’ visa with a new ‘Innovator Visa’ in April. Yet in its first three months, only two people received this new class of visa out of only a handful of applicants. Meanwhile, in the third quester of this year, just 49 Tier-1 ‘Investor Visas’ were handed out – that’s a 60 per cent drop from the previous quarter.
The ‘Innovator Visa’ has been criticised for being “too restrictive”, with the Home Office drawing up tighter conditions than for its predecessor. For the ‘Investor Visa’, immigration advisors argue that too little information about the changes introduced in April has “filtered down” to the wider community of international investors.
Both these issues could be addressed easily by the Government and would boost confidence in the UK’s appetite for attracting the skills and capital it needs to grow its post-Brexit economy.
Britain could even take a leaf out of the EU’s book, with a Schengen Visa system that is significantly more business-friendly than that of the UK’s. French President Emmanuel Macron’s new and highly flexible ‘Tech Visa’ has made his country attractive for entrepreneurial talent, with the tech sector of Paris drawing talent and cash away from London.
The UK’s existing visa regime creates massive disadvantages for UK entities, especially in comparison to their European counterparts. This is especially true for those who in the exhibition or training sectors, so vital to Britain’s increasingly knowledge and data-driven economy.
If the Government brings back it’s Immigration Bill, it should ensure the provision of a new category of ‘Business Event Visa’ or ‘Seminar Visa’, with a swift and smooth online process where host businesses take responsibility for much of the needed administration, such as insurance.
This will allow global businesspeople and entrepreneurs, as well as professionals from the fields of medicine, law or engineering, to visit the UK more freely to attend events and – crucially – invest in our economy.
This will be vital in turbo-charging the British economy for the 2020s.