Cap on skilled non-EU migrants has little impact on recruitment, campaigners say
Curbs on a key non-EU migration route have had "virtually no impact" on the ability of firms to recruit overseas talent, a campaign group claims.
An annual cap on work permits available for skilled staff from outside Europe has not been reached in five years since it was introduced in 2010, according to Migration Watch UK.
It accused business lobby groups of "crying wolf" over the effect of the restrictions on Tier 2 general visas.
This is the main immigration route for nationals from outside the European Economic Area to apply to work in the UK.
Migrants arriving through the scheme must have a job with a yearly salary of at least £20,800, and Tier 2 is subject to an annual limit of 20,700 posts.
In the first three years of operation the cap did not bite at all, with just 54% of available certificates of sponsorship being used, according to analysis by Migration Watch UK, which campaigns for tighter immigration controls.
In 2014/15, there were 20,087 certificates issued out of 20,700 available, while 235 certificates were returned due to non-use, the report said.
It added that in the following year 22,037 certificates were issued - more than the cap - but almost 2,800 were returned unused or reclaimed.
Monthly limits have been reached on occasions, however, and the study acknowledged that some businesses have been temporarily prevented from sponsoring an applicant due to over-subscription
The paper said that " on an annual basis, no employer has been prevented from bringing in a skilled worker since the economic cap was introduced, although some employers might have had to wait a month before they could obtain a certificate for their prospective employee".
It added: " The cap of 20,700 has therefore been sufficient to meet the needs of business for skilled workers."
Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of Migration Watch UK, said: "The business lobby have been crying wolf for years about the impact of the cap on business but it has now become clear that the annual cap has never been breached.
"The very same lobby is now claiming that a reduction in migration from the EU for low skilled work will be a disaster but, with their record, the public will not be convinced."
Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said Migration Watch " are missing the point".
He said: "The Tier 2 visa cap isn't being broken because the restrictions are so high that employers are being prevented from applying in the first place.
"The Tier 2 visa system is a prime example of how UK immigration policies are not fit for purpose.
"The current system for non-EU migrants is determined by 13 separate acts of Parliament, as well as 10,000 pages of guidance relating to 1,400 categories of immigrants.
"Employers must answer over 100 questions about a prospective employee when applying for a visa on their behalf and applications are typically 85 pages in length.
"Home Office officials must then consult 1,300 pages of instructions before deciding if a visa will be issued, so employers are often left waiting for months to hear whether an application has been granted.
"If Migration Watch thinks this is a good system, clearly they know little about the realities of running a business."
Josh Hardie, deputy director-general at the CBI, said: "Skilled migration is good for the UK, helping companies to fill skill gaps and supporting firms to trade globally.
"Tier 2 migrants are the most important part of the non-EU migration system. The route is already extremely restrictive and it is getting harder to get the right person at the right time.
"Businesses want to see the tier 2 cap raised, not further visa price increases, particularly a skills charge that will only hold back firms of all sizes and sectors across the UK."
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The controls that we have put in place around Tier 2 visas ensure our immigration system continues to work in the national interest and support employers in looking first to the UK resident labour market before recruiting from overseas.
"The latest published statistics show that 99.7% of Tier 2 cases from abroad received an outcome within 15 days and 99.6% of Tier 2 cases made in the UK received an outcome within eight weeks. Furthermore, the guidance is 122 pages, and covers all four categories of this visa group.
"No employer has been denied a place for a shortage occupation or PhD-level job due to the limit being oversubscribed and the limit has not been oversubscribed since October 2015."