Holes in red carpet for foreign staff: Britain aims to import investment as well as skills

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The Independent Online
GROWING numbers of foreign professionals are working in the UK. In the year to March 1993, 37,917 work permits were granted to overseas businesses, from 56,192 applications. This 64 per cent success rate marks recognition of the valuable contribution non-EU nationals make to the British economy.

A spokeswoman at the Department of Employment said: 'It is in the country's interest to attract as much international investment as possible.'

Eva-Lotta Nilsson is employed as a lawyer in the London branch of the leading Swedish law firm Lagerlof & Leman. The firm, which also has branches in Berlin, Paris and New York, believes it is essential to have a presence in London in order to respond to the needs of its clients, many of whom invest heavily in the UK.

However, Lagerlof & Leman says the Department of Employment has been unduly restrictive on occasions about the types of employee it will allow the firm to bring to the UK.

The application form for work permits broadly requires employers to satisfy the DoE that the prospective employee's post requires specialist skills that cannot readily be found in the UK or the rest of the EU. EU nationals have not needed work permits since the start of this year.

The application form's guidance notes state that work permits are not issued 'for jobs at manual, craft, secretarial or similar levels'.

Ms Nilsson said: 'When the office was established, we tried unsuccessfully to recruit a secretary in the UK who was fluent in both English and Swedish. Eventually we found a Swedish national who was prepared to come to the UK. The work permit application was turned down on the basis that a UK national could learn Swedish.

'This argument was sustained, despite the fact that the firm had unsuccessfully advertised in the British press. The view that a British national could learn Swedish as a foreign language to the point that she would write legal Swedish was quite unrealistic.

'We concluded that the development of our London practice was hampered by the narrow view taken by the Department of Employment. Its decision was clearly based on unrealistic assumptions.'

The DoE will usually issue work permits within six to eight weeks of the receipt of an application. This compares favourably with the United States, the destination for large numbers of British businessmen. The US Immigration and Naturalisation Service can take up to three months to approve an inter-company transfer.

The US system, like that of the UK, places great significance on the employee's skill and specialist knowledge. But the INS will grant larger companies, subject to their satisfying certain criteria, blanket approval for the transfer of certain employees to the US. The DoE, by contrast, requires a separate application for each employee.

The Government is considering trying to attract not only foreign know-how but also capital. In a consultative document issued last July, it considered changes to the immigration rules relating to the value of the assets required by people of independent means who want to settle in the UK.

One of the Government's principal observations is that the funds which non-EU nationals are required to invest in the UK to gain entry is on the low side. The present minimum level of funds required to obtain independent-means status for those who can prove a close connection with the UK is only pounds 200,000. It is intended that this category will in future be restricted to applicants aged over 60. The intention is to create a new category of investor who must have a disposable sum of pounds 1m, of which pounds 750,000 must be invested in active UK companies.