London's Silicon Roundabout needs more employees with the right skills. Photo: Getty
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Immigration policy is holding back the UK's tech boom

The government's ambitious project of putting coding on the national curriculum is exactly what UK tech needs. But in the short term, immigration policy is holding us back.

One of the biggest economic challenges facing our nation is the need for more qualified, highly-skilled professionals…Yet because our current immigration system is outdated and inefficient, many high- skilled immigrants who want to stay in America are forced to leave . . . Some do not bother to come in the first place.

Signed by executives from the likes of Google, Facebook and Yahoo these are the words of a letter sent to President Obama last year to argue for the relaxation of US immigration controls. It is striking how accurately they apply to Britain today.

Since 2003 Europe has produced $30bn technology startups; 11 of them were created here in the UK. Russia, the second best performer, produced only five.

From fast-food marketplace JustEat to financial technology giant Markit, the UK tech sector is paving the way for a new era of explosive economic growth. But just as it begins to hit full stride — in London 27 per cent of all new jobs are created by technology-focused businesses — Britain’s tech sector is in danger of being hamstrung by a shortage of skills.

My own company, Quill, has a team of 26 and is currently trying to fill 17 vacancies despite growing over 100 per cent year-on-year. The simple truth is that our education system does not cultivate the right skills to satisfy the demands of our burgeoning tech sector.

In fairness, the government has not been idle in the face of this threat; coding will now be a compulsory part of the national curriculum for UK students between the ages of five and 16.

This is a welcome reform and sees Britain leapfrog some of the world’s leading tech-hubs – including the US. But while the coalition’s long-term efforts to boost the supply of homegrown talent are to be applauded, they are not a solution to the short-term problem. The skills gap in this country is hurting British competitiveness now and, if the government fails to act, it threatens to see the UK fall behind.

It’s frustrating that the steps being made by the Department for Education are being countered by the Home Office’s increasingly regressive position on immigration. There is much talk about which political party the rise of Ukip has damaged most; the truth is that Britain’s technology industry stands to be the biggest victim of its influence on the immigration debate.

As things stand, companies looking to bring talent to the UK from outside of the EU must apply for a specialist Tier 2 visa. In 2013 just 10,179 such visas were granted, considerably below the 20,700 cap. Far from reflecting a lack of demand, such figures are testament to the mire of red-tape around the current system, red-tape that hits small businesses – who lack sophisticated compliance infrastructures – disproportionately hard.

According to research conducted by business intelligence company Duedil and the Centre for Entrepreneurs, companies founded or co-founded by migrant entrepreneurs total 14.5 per cent of all UK businesses and employ 1.16m people around the country.

Unless the government does more to recognise the enormous value that migrant talent offers our economy then those benefiting from educational reforms today may not have a world class tech sector to employ them in a decade’s time.

Britain must rethink its attitude to immigration, because as we cast aside the talented migrants seeking to live and work in the UK, our competitors, from Berlin to Bangalore, are welcoming them with open arms.

In 2012, the US reached its high-skill immigration cap of 65,000 in just five days. Our schools have begun a steal a march on their American counterparts; if our immigration system can do the same then perhaps when the next Google is born, it will be on these shores.

Ed Bussey is the founder and CEO of Quill Content

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser