Fast-track visas fuel disquiet

THE GOVERNMENT has been accused of stupidity over its planned scheme to bring in IT specialists from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe and give them quick-and-easy visas and work permits, writes Jason Nisse.

The Department for Education and Employment is currently working on plans for fast-track visas, and it is expected that Margaret Hodge, the Employment Minister, will make an announcement about the scheme early next year.

The move comes just as the Treasury and the Inland Revenue are consulting on the IR 35 proposals, which were announced in the last Budget. These aim to close the loophole through which freelance workers avoid paying National

Insurance by setting themselves up as limited companies. The proposals' main target are IT contractors who often claim they are freelance, despite working for only one employer.

The plans have been widely attacked by industry bodies, contractors and the Conservative Party, which attempted to orchestrate a revolt against the move in the House of Lords. Dawn Primarolo, the Paymaster General, has agreed to tone down some of the more controversial elements of IR 35.

However, the Professional Contractors Group (PCG), the trade body of IT experts, says that concerns about IR 35 are making skilled computer specialists leave in droves. A survey of the group's membership found that a third were considering leaving the UK because of the new rules.

Ms Primarolo, in a letter to a computer magazine, defended IR 35, saying that it "cannot be right for someone earning pounds 100,000 a year to hide behind the corporate structure of a limited company and pay less tax and National Insurance".

Susie Hughes of the PCG was shocked at the fast-track visas development. "It is ironic when most leading IT contractors are taking themselves out of the country," she said.

Ian Peters, deputy director general of the British Chamber of Commerce, said: "We have one government department attacking IT contractors and another trying to deal with a skills shortage."