Ryan Bourne: Will the Government’s new High Potential Individual visa actually attract top global talent?

28 Jul

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Advocates of free market policies could be forgiven for having a sense of despair right now. With the revival of industrial policy, a high and growing tax burden, mooted expansions in age-related spending, and nannying lifestyle and environmental agendas emanating from Downing Street, it’s easy to fear the direction of Conservative economics.

Among all the gloom, though, several winnable battles are emerging. Trade minister Liz Truss’s gusto in pursuing liberalising trade agreements appears ascendant against Tory protectionists. And just last week another Cabinet liberal showed aggression in pursuing an outward-facing policy generating plaudits in Washington DC. Kwasi Kwarteng’s BEIS laid down a marker towards liberalising high-skilled immigration to attract top global talent to the UK.

The Government’s Innovation Strategy, in which the policy is explained, still had bits of central planning on the movement of people. A dubiously named cross-departmental “Office for Talent” will apparently smooth the passageway to the UK for the very top scientists and innovators. Why the Government will be any better at identifying “potential” talent than selecting the industries of the future is an open question.

That said, the strategy would strip away obvious barriers to high-skilled people locating here. The centrepiece would be a new “High Potential Individual” visa route, which global graduates from “top” universities worldwide would be eligible to apply for. This route would require no job offer or sponsor.

Many have interpreted it as simply a new freedom for well-educated individuals to come here, work, or switch jobs as they please. In the U.S. it has certainly been read that way. Alongside the Hong Kong citizenship offer, the UK’s message of openness to top talent has not gone unnoticed.

Caleb Watney, Director of Innovation Policy at the Progressive Policy Institute in DC, tweeted “The UK is really getting aggressive about recruiting high-skill immigrants.” The text explaining the new visa was cheered by the US digital editor of The Economist, Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith, and hundreds of other Americans who suggested the US should copy it.

That’s because the economic evidence is clear-cut. High-skilled immigrants have been shown to increase the production of knowledge through patents, innovation, and entrepreneurship, without harming natives.

The flow of new ideas tends to be constrained by the supply of talented scientists, engineers, technicians, and innovative entrepreneurs. Fewer barriers to them moving here means more knowledge production, more productive new technologies, and so higher productivity growth—an Achilles heel for the UK economy in the past decade.

U.S. studies have found high-skilled migrants boost innovation. A percentage point increase in the population share of immigrant graduates was found by some economists to increase patents per capita by over 10 per cent. Other economists have estimated that a “1 percentage point increase in the foreign STEM share of a city’s total employment increased the wage growth of native college [university] educated labour by about 7-8 percentage points and the wage growth of non-college educated natives by 3-4 percentage points.”

Barriers to top scientists moving, in particular, have been shown to harm global knowledge production too, preventing people clustering where their research efforts are most effective. If the UK could make itself a haven for the globally talented, then, we would reap the rewards domestically, but also contribute to expanding the global knowledge frontier.

The question, then, is whether the visa route will truly be as liberal as some have implied. Within government, there appears some dispute on how open or prescriptive conditions should be as the details are thrashed out.

The Business Secretary shared a tweet last week that implied the policy was indeed an invitation for all top university graduates to freely move here. But I’ve been told that the Home Office sees the “top university graduate” requirement to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful application. In other words, it wants other criteria to be attached—supporting previous indications that the number of High Potential Individual visas might even be capped, or at least combined with other bureaucratic criterion to assess a person’s “potential.”

The strategy’s text itself is ambiguous, on both what constitutes a top university and whether that alone is enough to qualify as “high potential” or is merely one prerequisite. Theresa May, of course, scrapped the final incarnation of the old “Highly Skilled Migrant programme” on the grounds that it was too broad in terms of eligibility for graduates, using the fact some beneficiaries from lesser institutions went on to take low-skilled jobs as evidence against the programme.

Given this visa route would discriminate by university, that “problem” would be mitigated against significantly. But the “top university” condition alone doesn’t appear enough to satisfy Home Office thinking. These people see high immigration numbers as bad per se, and want more conditions to increase the probability of applicant success. They dislike the idea of a visa route open to *anyone* meeting one high-bar condition, precisely because it is potentially open-ended.

True, graduating from a “top university” is no guarantor of talent or future success. But that cuts both ways. Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Daniel Ek, and other top entrepreneurs didn’t graduate from a top university.

Research from 2016 showed that 25 per cent of self-made global billionaires were high school or university drop-outs. Covering these and other bases is presumably why the Government is proposing a “start-up route” for would-be employees of rapidly growing companies and a “revitalised” Innovator route, on top of the Global Business Mobility visa for worker transfers, and the Global Entrepreneur Programme too.

But a simple “top university graduate” condition would surely include most high-skilled talent, while remaining more acceptable to the constraint of public opinion. Indeed, if the UK is truly ambitious about being a high knowledge economy, it should be willing to take risks on high-skilled immigrants with uncertain potential in order to capture the great mavericks, rather than overly-circumscribing according to government judgements of potential.

Nobody pretends, of course, that the location decisions for global talent are just about visa policy. Personal tax rates are important for determining where top foreign inventors and scientists move to.

Having sufficient university places and a pathway for graduates remaining here is key too. U.S. evidence has found that immigrant business founders were “likely to start their companies in the state in which they were educated.” More migrants want to move to the U.S. than anywhere else. Ensuring an economically open environment, while treating people well when here, then, are needed complements to removing immigration barriers to compete for talent.

But with Brexit and the pandemic, the UK has a real opportunity to reset migration policy in a pro-growth direction. We should not sacrifice that opportunity on the altar of a May-ite lust for controlling outcomes.

Mark Jenkinson: Freedom day should mean personal responsibility replacing state control of our lives

13 Jul

Mark Jenkinson is the Conservative MP for Workington. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

This time next week, the UK is going to look very different. As Boris Johnson has confirmed, July 19 will be “Freedom Day”, when the remaining Covid-19 restrictions will finally be lifted.

After 18 months in which the Government has exerted unprecedented control over our day-to-day lives, we will finally be free to meet as many people as we want to indoors, attend mass gatherings and even use public transport without wearing a face mask, if we so choose.

Of course, with the virus still circulating – and cases are continuing to rise – we will still be expected to act sensibly and cautiously, which is as it should be. We Conservatives firmly believe in personal responsibility, after all. But thanks to the UK’s tremendous vaccination programme, the link between case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths appears to have been broken. It’s impossible to remove all risk from every facet of our lives, so now it’s time for us all to learn to live with the virus, not live in fear of it.

Having our freedoms restricted by politicians – even ones we voted for – is not a long-term solution to any problem. Put simply, I firmly believe people should be trusted to get on with their lives and act in a sensible way that does no harm to themselves or pose a danger to others.

That is why I have grave concerns about calls by some anti-gambling campaigners that limits should be placed on how much individuals should be allowed to bet. As the MP for Workington, I know for a fact that working class voters do not like being told what to do by Westminster. This was borne out by recent YouGov polling, which found that a majority of British voters believe politicians should not set arbitrary limits on how much they are able to bet.

Furthermore, focus groups mainly carried out in Red Wall seats like mine found that voters are wary of post-Covid mission creep, with the threat of the state seeking to impose more control on people’s lives. They thought things like so-called “affordability checks” on betting were part of a culture war on their way of life, with having the occasional flutter viewed as a normal leisure pastime. I consider myself an irregular, responsible gambler – with many of my constituents the same, whether it’s the football, racing or the dogs.

If you think that such opinions are over-the-top, just consider the fact that the Government is ploughing ahead with plans to ban TV junk food adverts before 9pm. To my mind, this is an example of the nanny state gone mad. Reports suggest that advisors are recommending the introduction of a “salt tax”, and environmental campaigners are looking for a “meat tax” – I fear that civil servants are listening to them.

As a father of young children, I of course don’t want them to be eating a non-stop diet of unhealthy food. But it should be my responsibility as a parent to ensure that they enjoy a varied and healthy diet – it shouldn’t require Government intervention to make sure they eat well. People have looked to the state for permission for everything for the last 16 months, and that is going to be difficult enough for Conservatives to roll back, if we put ourselves in loco parentis by default it will only end badly.

I fully support the Gambling Review currently being carried out by the Government. It’s 16 years since the passing of the 2005 Gambling Act, so a fresh look at how the regulated betting and gaming industry has evolved since then is long overdue.

However, it’s vital that ministers get the balance right between protecting the vulnerable while ensuring that the millions who enjoy a flutter safely and responsibly are able to do so without being forced into the hands of the unregulated and unsafe black market, which has none of the safer gambling measures found in the regulated industry.

As the country finally emerges from the pandemic, and the Treasury sets about repairing the financial damage done by Covid, it’s also vitally important the economic contribution made by the regulated betting and gaming should not be put at risk. According to a report by Ernst and Young, in 2019 that amounted to supporting 119,000 jobs, generating £4.5 billion in tax and contributing £7.7 billion in gross value added.

The post-pandemic world will, in many ways, look very different to what we knew before. But the importance of politicians giving people the freedom to behave as they see fit, within the parameters of the law – and doing nothing to stifle economic growth – should remain.

Morgan Schondelmeier: The Government’s ban on junk food adverts before 9pm is regressive and infantilising

25 Jun

Morgan Schondelmeier is Head of External Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

Yesterday the Government pushed forward with its overbearing and unscientific nanny-state agenda. It has decided to ban “junk food” advertisements online and before 9pm on television. This policy lacks substantial evidence, is incredibly damaging for countless industries, and treats adults like children.

But can we be all that surprised? Are we shocked that this Government, and the ones been and gone, are infringing on our rights to see, hear, and taste yet again? This policy is just another in a long line of paternalistic nonsense that stems from the constant need for politicians to be seen to be doing something. Anything at all, really, no matter how damaging.

And these policies are damaging. They’re purporting to be “for the greater good”, masquerading as necessary interventions to protect us from whatever damage we would certainly do to ourselves if we didn’t have the guiding hand of the state. But what we’re really encountering are policies which will undoubtedly do more damage than they purport to fix. Even the Government’s own cost-benefit analyses show this.

Take the ban on “junk food”. The ban, spurred on by the Prime Minister’s own health journey (note: he managed to lose weight by taking personal initiative, not through government-backed punitive measures), claims to target childhood obesity by removing the “temptation” posed by seeing adverts for “junk food”.

You may note my repeated use of quotations around “junk food”. That’s because the category, officially known as high fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS), doesn’t just include sweets and crisps but countless other foods, including many British dietary staples. The Government has made some concessions on this front, generously allowing things like avocado and olive oil to still be seen on our screens, but far too many products still fall under this ban, like favourites fish and chips, sausage rolls and scones and jam.

The Government’s impact assessment found that banning this advertising would only reduce around 2.7 calories per day from a child’s diet. Even this claim is highly speculative. It is based on experiments in which children are shown television advertisements and immediately offered copious quantities of food. It’s hardly a surprise that they consume some of the food on offer. The Government’s impact assessment states that these studies “may lack generalisability to real world conditions e.g. where children have more limited access to unlimited HFSS food during and immediately after HFSS advertising exposure.”

The Government also admits that there is zero evidence, even of the speculative type mentioned above, to suggest that banning online advertising has any impact. It is also not known whether it will reduce lifetime calorie consumption or whether there will be calorie substitution effects (i.e. children eating more at meal times). The evidence also suggests that advertisement bans do not limit adult consumption. At all turns, the Government’s own research proves that this plan has no scientific backing.

So what are we sacrificing in order to knock off 2.7 calories per child per day? Considering the ban hits not just fast food restaurants but also producers and consumers of goods and the platforms which rely on advertising revenue, the Government estimates a loss of £1.5 billion from broadcasters, £3.5 billion from online platforms, £550 million from ad agencies and £659 million from product makers. This doesn’t even factor in the cost to consumer welfare, including for adults, from not being able to see adverts for products, consume what they want and get the best value.

We have seen it time and time again, with this misguided policy and countless other paternalistic interventions: minimum alcohol pricing doesn’t decrease consumption but increases costs for the poorest; gambling bans show little evidence of curbing problem gambling but slash useful tax revenues; hesitancy to accept vaping or heated tobacco only prolongs the damage done by smoking; and banning by-one-get-one ready meals makes it harder for families to feed themselves.

At every turn, this Government puts forth unscientific, regressive, and infantilising policies under the guise of public health. This highly interventionist mindset is hardly a Conservative approach.

We should demand more from our policymakers. Yes, we want to live in a happier, healthier, more prosperous society –– and supporters of these policies genuinely think they will help us achieve that goal. But the evidence always points elsewhere. The benefits do not outweigh the costs. The least we should be able to expect are policies which are thoroughly researched, robustly challenged, and backed by evidence. Right now, all we’re getting are back of the napkin calculations drawn up at a lunch paid for by lobbyists.

Jason Reed: Oxfordshire’s plan to become smoke free is yet another example of state overreach

2 Jun

Jason Reed is the founder of Young Voices UK and a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center.

In February of last year, Ansaf Azhar, the director of public health for Oxfordshire county council, unveiled the “Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy”. Azhar had decided that the proportion of people living in Oxfordshire who smoke – 12 per cent – was too high and needed to be slashed. When fewer than five per cent of people smoke, an area can be considered “smoke free”. Azhar made it his mission to make Oxfordshire England’s first smoke-free county.

The Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy was signed off by the county council in principle in May last year. You would be forgiven for thinking that since then, the director of public health at a local authority might have had more pressing matters to attend to than smoking. But Azhar has apparently continued his crusade against cigarettes undeterred.

He has now horrified right-thinking people up and down the country by declaring the council’s intention to ban smoking for outdoor hospitality. Although the plan currently lacks an implementation timetable or any other firm commitment, the fact that it is part of the plan at all says some very worrying things about the direction we’re heading in.

In the new world order of the nanny state, everything can be neatly categorised into good and bad. Everything is black and white – it’s all either vital or morally reprehensible. Once it is accepted that an activity is objectively “bad”, who could possibly oppose its being banned?

Of course, the real world, outside the offices of “directors of public health”, is rather different. It is not all black and white. There are lots of shades of grey. But nuance and freedom of choice aren’t all that fashionable these days.

Unfortunately for smokers, cigarettes have been deemed a social evil. Their existence is so objectively awful that the reasoning behind drastic measures to wipe them from the face of the earth doesn’t even need justifying. The result is that ludicrous policy proposals like the Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy can be signed off and made reality with startlingly little scrutiny from those we elect to represent us and safeguard our civil liberties.

If you can bear it, I recommend a cursory read of the offending document, for novelty value if nothing else. It talks not of blanket bans, sweeping restrictions and ill-thought-out curbs on our freedoms, but instead of “creating smoke free environments”, as though we are being given a gift of something new to enjoy and ought to be grateful.

Most troubling is the way the document’s authors seem to be in complete denial that they are wielding the tools of the state at all. They write: “The interventions required to successfully de-normalise smoking and achieve a smoke free Oxfordshire may be considered as “nanny statist” or an assault on personal choice by some people. The whole system approach to make smoking less visible is not banning the choice of people who choose to smoke. It aims to create smoke free environments in more places in our communities, protecting the free choice of the nine out of ten residents of Oxfordshire who choose not to smoke.”

Oh, you thought our harsh new restrictions on what you can and can’t do in public were an assault on your freedom, did you? Don’t worry – if you look carefully, you’ll find that bans on common activities actually give you more freedom, not less.

The counter-factual logic behind the introduction of new regulations in the name of “public health” knows no bounds. If the council actually wanted to make Oxfordshire healthier, it would see that the answer is not to put yet more unnecessary strain on the hospitality industry at this impossibly difficult time.

Instead, the council should throw all its efforts behind supporting vaping as an alternative to smoking. More than half of Britain’s e-cigarette users – around 1.7 million people – are former smokers. Those nine out of ten Oxfordshire residents who don’t smoke won’t have to worry about any health risks from second-hand e-cigarette vapour. Even Public Health England concedes – with a great deal of reluctance – that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking.

And yet, in the 24-page Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy, there is not a single mention of vaping, the most effective instrument for tobacco control we have. That begs the question: what do the public health authorities actually want, if it is not to make people healthier? When they flagrantly eschew proven harm reduction tools in favour of gratuitous centralised policy interventions, it becomes impossible to sympathise with their motives.

This problem stretches much further than Oxfordshire. In fact, the county is only a few years ahead of national public health outcomes. Its strategy mimics that of Public Health England, which is working towards Matt Hancock’s target of making England smoke-free by 2030.

The attack on effective harm reduction methods and the swing towards a new age of nanny statism comes from the very top. Last week, the World Health Organisation honoured the health minister of India for his work on “tobacco control” which notably includes banning vaping. A new APPG, chaired by Mark Pawsey, the Conservative MP, seeks to bring to a halt the WHO’s pernicious influence in areas like this. That task becomes more difficult with each passing day.

What matters to me, as a vegetarian, is less detail than vision – one of a long journey towards a better future.

9 Mar

As someone who hasn’t eaten meat for 18 years (albeit I have been pescetarian for some of this), I was delighted by two recent stories in the papers. The first was that the Government plans to ban imports of foie gras with its new Brexit freedoms. The second was that pig farmers will be banned from confining sows in cages. At present they are allowed to keep thousands of sows for up to seven weeks in narrow metal cages before and after giving birth.

Personally I find the practice of making foie gras, and the idea of caged pigs, horrible. But I know not everyone is as excited about the measures to tackle them. Currently, Britain imports an estimated 180 to 200 tonnes of foie gras a year, which shows how much demand there is for the product, and some farmers say the ban on cages for sows will result in them crushing piglets. There will be arguments about whether Britain should dictate imports in this way. Where does it end? And so forth.

These are all reasonable concerns. But I have to confess that if someone wanted a long debate about these points I would have a limited amount to say. Do I know what’s best for pig farmers? No. Or whether the foie gras import ban counts as evidence of the “nanny state”? No. Like anyone else who shares my views on meat, I see things through an idealistic, rather than technical, lens; a move towards a wider, long-term goal. I simply believe that societies (that can) should phase out eating meat and using animal products, and support changes that take us closer to that idea.

I know what you may be thinking at this point. “Phase out meat! Are you mad?” That or “Have I stumbled onto the Extinction Rebellion blog?” I don’t tend to broadcast my views on animal rights because they are quite “radical”. I also don’t want to lecture people because of that stereotype, captured by the joke: “How do you know someone is a vegan? They’ll tell you”. Although I find the opposite is true, as most veggies want a quiet life, while others ask repeatedly: “why don’t you eat meat?”. Perhaps we should all say that we “just love rescuing things”, as Meghan Markle said of her chickens while talking to Oprah.

Luckily the Veggie Crew, as I shall shorten it, hasn’t needed to be too preachy in recent years as there are now so many dietary options and there’s been a huge cultural shift towards *whispers it* veganism. It’s now cool to do veganuary (well, I think so at least) and if you tell a dinner party host you’re vegetarian, you’ll find others coming are too. The speed at which these things have happened is amazing, with so much choice for Team VC.

Choice does take me back to the Government’s import ban, which I want to make one point on. I do agree with the direction it’s gone in given how cruel the aforementioned practices are, but as a general rule I don’t believe you can force attitudes to meat/ animal rights. For instance, was it really a good idea for universities to ban meat from campuses? It’s surely counterproductive as no one likes being told what to do, and they might rebel by way of a McDonald’s splurge. Just make everyone watch Babe is my solution.

That being said, one reason the Government has enacted these policies is to send a strong message on post-Brexit Global Britain. Militant Remainers argued before and after the referendum that Brexit would be a “race to the bottom” for animal welfare, but the Government can now show that’s wrong. As a Brexiteer, I never believed in those scare stories anyway, because of the enormous shift we’ve seen in dietary habits.

Either way, I am excited to see Conservatives show how much they care about animal rights. Sometimes these areas are portrayed as “woke” ones, but I believe they are important steps – not least for the economy (it’s fantastic to have all this choice). Fundamentally it’s not really a “policy” thing for Babe lovers like me, though; it’s one of a long journey towards a better future.

There is more than a hint of moral coercion in the way ministers have addressed us in the name of the NHS

30 Jul

Nothing is more tiresome than to find ourselves subjected by those in authority to a coercive morality. When politicians or officials suppose that because they possess, or imagine they possess, a superior understanding of the right thing to do, they are entitled to order us around, they create enormous resentment.

This is what people mean when they condemn “the nanny state”. We bridle at the implication that we are infants, unable to make decisions for ourselves, obliged to respect the higher wisdom of the grown ups.

We expect to be regarded as free men and women, whose consent cannot be taken for granted, but must be won by addressing us as equals and respecting our opinions.

All of which makes communicating any message to do with public health tricky. If handed down from on high, it is likely to be counter-productive.

But if delivered in a tactful, watered down way, in order to avoid putting people’s backs up, it can seem too feeble and evasive to be worth saying.

Then people start to call for “the smack of firm government”: something they would almost certainly find objectionable if actually administered.

The Government recognised, at the start of the pandemic, that it had to show it was listening to the best scientific and medical advice. For ministers to start telling us what to do purely on their own authority would have been intolerable.

But there was still more than a hint of moral coercion in the way ministers wrapped themselves in the NHS. However much one may revere the memory of Sir Henry Willink, the Conservative Minister of Health whose photograph appears at the head of this article, and who in 1944 announced the setting up of the NHS, and however grateful one may feel for the efforts of those who now work for the service, one does not wish to feel compelled by the Government to issue a blanket seal of approval.

Freely given praise is one thing, forced applause quite another. We do not want to be told whom to cheer, or how often and loudly to do so.

The wider public understands this. The infuriated moralists who infest social media, denouncing with puritanical self-righteousness whatever heretical deviations they can find from their own narrowly defined yet often rapidly evolving version of the truth, tend not to understand it.

Oddly enough, a good nanny understands the need to give children, and those children’s parents, a certain freedom of initiative. Mary Poppins got Mr Banks, that purblind banker and father, to change his ideas.

Politicians and officials seldom have the confidence to do this. They suppose they should pretend to an almost totalitarian infallibility.

Fewer and fewer areas of life seem to be spared this approach. Ministers even pretend to know what to do about obesity.

If they contented themselves with the less ambitious role of encouraging the rest of us to show what we can do, the results would be better.