When Business Secretary Vince Cable praised migrant entrepreneurs at last night’s Tech City News International Hall of Fame Awards, it was a welcome break from the usual rhetoric around immigration.
Not with a bargepole
Immigration is the third rail of British politics and with the most recent British National Attitudes Survey suggesting 47% believe it has a negative impact on the country, there’s less of a debate now and more a race between the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems to seem suitably tough on the topic in the hope of counteracting the rise of UKIP.
For a politician to stand up in 2014 and suggest that we need more and not less immigration would be downright suicidal. But when it comes to the tech sector, it’s true.
While Silicon Valley is demanding immigration reform with the Zuckerberg-backed FWD.US, tweaks to the UK’s visa regime haven’t done enough to help tech companies bring new talent into the UK.
Bureaucracy blocking tech
There’s an incredibly high bar to entry and one that even some of the most talented coders, designers and founders can’t meet. Add in desperately convoluted paperwork and bureaucratic confusion and your left with a far from ideal setup.
Perhaps immigration would still be an issue for genuine debate rather than an opportunity for politicians to flex their muscles if the conversation focused on more than UKIP’s monstrous and largely mythical conception of an Eastern European influx.
Across the 21 figures recognise at the Tech City News International Hall of Fame event there were Australians, Canadians, South Africans and, yes, Estonians – Taavet Hinrikus and Kristo Kaarmann of Transferwise – all of whom have brought business to London and beyond without packing a UK passport.
Other European countries including Spain and Germany are modernising their immigration rules to encourage graduates and entrepreneurs to make their homes their. Outside of Europe, Startup Chile has leapt from just 22 startups to over 1,000 thanks to a particularly welcoming outlook.
Britain in the slow lane
Hidebound by old legislation and rhetoric that demonises the very notion of immigrants making a positive contribution to the nation, Britain risks getting left behind. 50% of foreign entrepreneurs who applied for a visa in 2013 failed to get one.
In a government trying to push down numbers of migrants, that will have been seen as a success.
Rebalancing the agenda
Britain needs to hear more voices talking about the upsides of immigration and highlighting the success stories. Immigration will undoubtedly be an issue at the 2015 election.
Instead of hearing more ginned up tales of Eastern European hordes that never arrive, the UK tech community needs its own version of FWD.US to promulgate a more positive message.
A report by the Centre for Entrepreneurs and Duedil earlier this year that identified 456,073 migrant entrepreneurs running active companies in the UK received a lot less coverage than UKIP’s frequently unsourced scaremongering.
Get your facts right
The current hostility towards immigration is frequently based on skewed facts and false assumptions. The tech industry can play a big role in creating a more balanced conversation.
We have to stop letting Nigel Farage drive the debate and do better at telling the positive stories about businesses built by migrants but bringing jobs and growth to Britain.
Of course immigration is a complex issue but right now it’s one where a single side has disproportionate clout. Politicians will only change their tune when an alternative message gets some traction. It’s in tech companies own interests to provide that.