New immigration plans similar to the US green card system will make it easier for people with specialist IT skills to move to the UK to work.
The Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP) has been introduced to attract the best of the world's brainpower to the UK. It is just one of several far-reaching immigration proposals outlined in a white paper unveiled by Home Secretary David Blunkett last week.
HSMP, which officially kicked off on 28 January and will run initially for 12 months, means that individuals with sought after skills, abilities or experience will, for the first time, be able to come to the UK whether or not they have a job.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said the new rules aim to reduce work permit processing times to one day. "This scheme is aimed at people who can contribute to the UK economy," she said.
Although IT professionals will not be singled out for preferential treatment, the Home Office has already earmarked certain IT skills as suffering from acute shortages.
Tier one shortage occupations include senior Java and Java Script architects, business analysts and network specialists, analyst programmers, database specialists and software engineers across a variety of technologies.
HSMP also includes measures to allow foreign students who have graduated in the UK to switch into work permit employment. Permits issued via the programme are valid for one year but have the option of being extended for up to three years if there is evidence that skills continue to be in demand.
Tim Conway, a director at industry body the Computer Software and Services Association, welcomed the proposals, which he said marked an important step away from employer sponsorship of individual workers.
"We may not have a skills crisis but we have ongoing skills gaps. The scheme will also help entrepreneurs come to the UK on the basis of ideas and capabilities and not just money," he said.
The scheme could also go some way to addressing regional skills imbalances. "Evidence suggests that we have a real labour mobility problem. Companies in the north have real skills shortages but people don't want to work there," explained Conway.
But the programme received a much cooler reception from the Professional Contractor Group (PCG). Earlier this year it called for a reintroduction of stricter immigration rules, following concerns that UK firms were exploiting fast track immigration rules to pay lower rates for key IT workers.
PCG spokeswoman Suzie Hughes said: "We would accept a government scheme to bring and retain people to meet a genuine skills shortage, but some companies are using immigration rules as a skills replacement.
"The government needs to look carefully at where skills shortages are so that the scheme is not open to abuse."
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