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Cuts to working visas don’t add up for accountants

Changes to skilled worker visas could cut off valuable talent source, writes Simon Grant, head of members for chartered accountants Australia and New Zealand

In the east end of London there are thirty UK residents at the local arm of an international investment bank who owe their employment to the Australian managing director who was granted a UK working visa in 2009.

In conversation, the managing director explains that while he viewed establishing a London office as the logical extension of the long standing cultural, professional, ethical and legal values that Australia and the UK share, had his Tier2 Visa not been granted, he could have just as easily established the same business in Dublin, Paris or Frankfurt.

Accounting professionals who are interested in pursuing careers and establishing businesses in the UK (or vice-versa) cannot be complacent that mutual feelings of historical goodwill shall continue to allow opportunities for transfer of talent and investment between commonwealth countries.
The possibility of high value foreign businesses choosing other parts of Europe as their operational base where their skilled employees are more welcome, could become a reality if the government overlooks the value that this small, but significant group, makes to the economy.

About 4,500 chartered accountants from Australia and New Zealand work in the UK, and the majority return home after a few years. According to a survey of these members, one third moved to the UK on a permanent basis, another third moved on a 2-3 year work experience cycle and the last third on a 3-6 year development cycle.

The last time a change was made to the rules allowing Australians and New Zealanders to work in the UK - the closure of Tier 1 in 2011 - work visas to Australians fell by 14 per cent and for New Zealanders by 22.5 per cent despite the UK economy recovering from the GFC.

Our members do more than just check numbers. As investment and exports drive UK economic growth, businesses require highly trained, highly skilled professionals. When they enter with Tier 2 visas they tend to do so in well paid and senior positions bringing expertise and new ways of working that are not immediately available in the UK labour market. For example, markets like resources and mining are in their infancy in the UK, as compared with resource-rich Australia, and the local workforce will take some time to develop this expertise.

In its determination to cut the stubbornly high net immigration figures, the government risks cutting off the highly skilled workers those businesses need. This March, net immigration figures hit 330,000 but the government wants a final tally of closer to 100,000. The government's progress on this goal has been hampered due to the freedom of movement guaranteed in the European Economic Area.

Due to this, the government's focus has turned to moving immigration levers they can control, reducing professional immigration and playing to the electorate's fears.

Currently, the UK Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), is listening to evidence on the Points Based System of T2 visas. While the Australian and New Zealand governments, and professional associations, have acknowledged their shared cultural, political, security and economic ties, their submissions to MAC voiced their concerns about the impact of any visa change. Tier 2 is the main visa for skilled Australians and New Zealanders wanting to work in the UK.

New Zealand's High Commissioner is worried that restrictions could make it difficult to establish a company in UK. About 250 New Zealand businesses operating in the UK depend on skilled NZ employees moving to the UK where their company knowledge and experience is critical.

Among accounting firms, the global nature of their client base often means that their employees are sent to the UK on a one in, one out basis, with UK chartered accountants travelling in the opposite direction. The arrangement encourages the sharing of ideas and techniques and allows managers to share costs globally and provide opportunities for UK citizens to work abroad. Simply if Australian and New Zealand Chartered Accountants cannot obtain specialist working visas in the UK, then this reciprocity is risked to the detriment of UK citizens and their global firms who may wish to obtain career and country enhancing skills for their teams abroad in Australia and New Zealand.

Any further changes to visas for skilled workers risks cutting off the UK economy from a long-standing source of global talent. It also runs counter to the Conservative Party's 2015 election manifesto that specifically committed to improving ties with Australia.

Whether talent is domestic or imported, it is always critical for a growing business, especially in the digital age. Any multi-national considering moving work to another country will want to know beforehand that they will be able to recruit the talent or experience needed locally, and when not, the migration system will allow them to source these skills internationally.

The flexibility makes intuitive sense. If employers are paying such high sums they should be able to recruit the best workers from the global talent pool, rather than being restricted to just one country that is dealing with short-term political issues.

Simon Grant, head of members, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand

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