For too long, the immigration debate has been conducted without hard data about the economic contribution of migrants. Indeed, one of the most commonly held views is that immigrants are a drain on the economy, with public opinion polls consistently showing that immigrants are viewed in a negative light.
That migrants provide substantial value to the UK is no longer in any doubt. Our research has shown that nearly a half million migrant entrepreneurs, from 155 countries, are behind one in seven British companies and have created more than a million British jobs.
The evidence is clear. Britain relies heavily on entrepreneurial migrants to launch businesses, create jobs and grow the economy. As we strive to improve our national economic performance in a highly competitive global market, our politicians, education system, businesses and the media cannot afford to ignore such an important source of economic dynamism.
But do we have an immigration system open to entrepreneurs? Or are we missing out on talented entrepreneurs because of complex and rigid application processes that make visas difficult to obtain? Today, the Centre for Entrepreneurs hosted the launch of a report by immigration specialists Migreat, which seeks to answer that question.
The report, which draws on feedback from more than 60 foreign entrepreneurs who have gone through the Tier 1 Entrepreneur Visa application process, shows that obtaining an entrepreneur visa is highly challenging, even for individuals who meet the requirements. Not only that, but the high rates of rejection and perceived difficulty of obtaining the visa compared to similar schemes in other countries is found to be driving many entrepreneurs away from Britain's shores.
Despite the challenges, the evidence is that entrepreneurs want to start a business in Britain. Since it was launched, applications for the Entrepreneur Visa have grown from just 40 in 2008 to 1,321 at the beginning of 2013. But competition for these individuals is growing. At least six other countries now attract entrepreneurs through targeted visa schemes, many of which offer more flexible terms than those offered by the UK.
If the UK is to maintain its early lead, it is essential that the government remains responsive to the entrepreneur community. Migreat's report makes four simple recommendations that could significantly improve the immigration and visa process for entrepreneurs at little to no cost:
1. Return passports expediently.
2. Increase the flexibility in the format of documents that are accepted.
3. Align rules on the timing of the funding process with reality.
4. Involve experienced third parties in the genuine entrepreneur test.
Implementing these recommendations would help ensure that the current visa route is being used to its full potential. It would also send a signal to entrepreneurs around the world that Britain is serious about helping them contribute to our economy and our society.
A strong and vibrant entrepreneurial culture is essential for our future prosperity. If our society is to thrive, we must do everything possible to ensure that people in the UK are encouraged to start and grow businesses and that they are celebrated for doing so.
We should be willing to accept, however, that we need to attract entrepreneurial migrants. Thousands of jobs depend on our ability to encourage entrepreneurs from all corners of the world to settle and launch businesses in the UK.
Through our polling, we have found that the public recognise the positive contribution made by migrant entrepreneurs and support government efforts to attract new entrepreneurs to the UK. A full 44% believe migrant entrepreneurs make a positive contribution to the UK. Five times as many people support increasing the number of migrant entrepreneurs as support increasing immigration overall.
There is a real opportunity to make the UK a hub for the world's most talented entrepreneurs. With other countries beginning to wake up their value, we cannot afford to allow the UK to fall behind in the race for this global talent. We must celebrate, not stifle, migrant entrepreneurs. This is a race we can and must win.
Download Migreat's report
Read more about the Centre for Entrepreneurs work on migrant entrepreneurs