There is no longer a skills shortage, but a skills surplus. We knew it, contractors knew it and our job was to demonstrate it with irrefutable evidence.
Our early decision was that we would adopt a strategy of constructive engagement with Work Permits UK, the Government agency responsible for issuing fast track visas, and other members of the skills sector panel.
As I prepared for what I knew would be my last meeting for the PCG, the odds were stacked against us. Our contract to supply Public Affairs for PCG had been cancelled, we were being urged to attack the scheme in tougher terms, organise demonstrations, co-ordinate a mass letter writing campaign and engage opposition MPs. In many respects it was a repeat of the IR35 campaign, but this time it was against fast track visas.
I had been the PCG's first Campaign Director for a short time during the IR35 campaign but had stood down to concentrate on my role as a Parliamentary Candidate for the Labour Party. I realised that there were lessons to be learnt from the IR35 campaign, the main one being: don’t politicise the campaign. As soon as it becomes political, Ministers cease to have room to manoeuvre. We also knew we had to be considered as partners and not opponents and by doing so could input constructive help and advice. (Andy White, who founded the PCG and launched the campaign against IR35 and then FTVs, will be comparing and contrasting the styles of both campaigns in a forthcoming Shout99.com article).
When Andy and Susan Hughes and Associates, a PR company of which I became a part, took over the Public Affairs brief for the PCG in September 2001, the Group’s policy on FTVs had been 'not to engage directly in this issue.' The downsides were obvious: the potential accusations of racism; the apparent contradictions as some members relocated overseas to avoid IR35. However, the policy of position was to change quickly. The market was declining; contracts were harder to come by and Andy felt there had to be a way to demonstrate the unfairness and anachronistic approach of this 'list' system.
At the same time, and unrelated to the campaign I was working on, Gurdial Rai, a contractor from Birmingham, had been a lone voice running his one-man campaign. Andy encouraged him to join the PCG and later to stand, successfully, for the Consultative Council. Jeff Rooker, his MP, had nominated him for a seat on the Work Permits Skills Sector Panel. By the October meeting, I had joined Gurdial on the Panel and we had successfully argued with the support of ATSCO for the removal of several skills from the list, including Visual Basic.
Gurdial and I then joined forces and travelled to Sheffield to meet with the Civil Servants in charge of the scheme. We outlined our case, supporting the Work Permits scheme in principle: where it is being used to fill genuine skill shortages, but not where it was being used to replace UK nationals. We stated that we wanted to survey members and ask for evidence and wanted to be able to forward these onto Work Permits UK for investigation. They agreed and I stated that we would do a press release on this. Susie Hughes, who was organising the PR side, and I discussed this in detail. We felt that while there was a case for bringing this to the media’s attention, it should be done in a low-key way and not in an antagonistic manner which would force Work Permits to take a public and entrenched position. As a show of good faith we sent our press releases to them for clearance and continued to keep them informed about our media activities. Indeed they did make some suggestions to our press notice drafts.
We needed to survey contractors to provide some hard and fast evidence. One of the advantages of also being an IT contractor, is that I could not only design the questionnaire, but was also able to turn it into a web page and write some Perl script to process it. I had it up and running on the PCG website the next day.
By now Gudial and I had places on the Skills Sector Panel, I was concerned that the panel consisted mainly of representatives from the 'demand side' (i.e. employers) and not 'supply side' (e.g. contractors and workers). For the panel to work successfully I felt that more representation was needed for IT workers. I raised this with Work Permits and then from there, met with a senior official in AMICUS/MSF trade union, briefing them about the issue and urging them to join the panel.
Gurdial and I attended the Skills Sector Panel meeting in January 2002 and raised with the panel issues about skills shortages and surplus and abuse of the scheme. We took the line that we supported the scheme and that it needed to not only work but be seen to work, a line which was taken by asking members. We presented evidence gathered from PCG members that many of the skills on the shortage list were not in short supply. We argued in particular for C/C++ and Oracle DBAs to be removed from the list. I also proposed Union membership of the Sector Panel, this was agreed and Work Permits went away to consult with the TUC. Later representatives from two different unions would be appointed to the panel.
In the meantime we were still keeping a low, but important, public profile while keeping our communications channels open with Work Permits so there were no bombshells which would de-rail our campaign. The political flagship programme Radio 4's 'Today' began to take an interest in us which led to them wanting to do a prime time piece on Fast Track Visas. I went to BBC Centre in London on Valentines Day. The BBC and others were expecting me to launch an outright attacked on the Government and its flawed policy on Work Permits. I chose not to do this as it would have politicised the issue and forced the Minister, Lord Rooker, to defend the scheme. Instead I focused on attacking the consequences of the scheme and the companies who were abusing it. The result was that the Minister agreed with me 'on air.' We raised the profile of the issue, identified a problem with it and kept the Government onside. The Government spin machine was not mobilised to attack our campaign or to contradict our message. I think that this more than anything demonstrated our seriousness and trustworthiness.
But no answer had come on C/C++ and Oracle DBAs so we decided to put some pressure on Work Permits. On one day in March we negotiated hard with them and were successful in getting Oracle DBA’s removed from the list that day and also saw an emergency meeting organised to discuss the inclusion of C/C++ on the list. Many have suggested that we organised a co-ordinated letter to MPs on FTV’s. We always shied away from doing this as the spectre of such a campaign carried more weight than an actual campaign could. It was one of our few cards but, once you play it has gone.
Throughout the campaign we continued to roll out news stories to keep the FTV campaign active. The best was the presentation of our abuse cases to the Home Office. This appeared with a picture of Gurdial and me outside the Home Office with our dossier of evidence. It appeared in almost all the IT trade press – and is still making appearances now. Following this we were invited to meet with Minister responsible for Work Permits – Lord Rooker. (In the end our meeting was postponed due to him being reshuffled in the wake of Stephen Byers' resignation on the very day our meeting was due to take place). But his contact with Gurdial as his MP; his radio appearance with me at the Today Programme, and a meeting with Andy at the previous Party Conference, had already given him faces to put to the 'cause.'
We held further meetings with Work Permits to discuss sham 'intra company transfers', phoney advertisements and our growing evidence of abuse. At this time a consultation was underway to determine whether agencies should be allowed to issue Work Permits. I opposed this and prepared a substantial submission bringing in evidence from Australia where they have a similar scheme in operation. We also lobbied the Unions, the TUC and other groups to make submissions on this. Whether we were successful on this remains to be seen.
In June the Skills Workshop was formed to examine the 'big picture'. Its conclusion was to propose using existing skills and market surveys (as complied by e-skills) as a basket of indicators to determine firstly, the state of the market and, secondly which skills were in short supply. In August we met again with Work Permits with more Senior Civil Servants and again outlined our general support for the scheme and wanted to show that projects should be taken in the UK and not abroad, and where the Work Permits scheme helps to deliver that, we support it whole-heartedly, but where it leads to UK workers being replaced and work going abroad we are opposed to it. Work Permits outlined to us that they had stepped up pre-permits checking and in September a team would be operational to carry out post-issue checks to clamp down on firms illegally body shopping. We pressed them hard saying that we wanted to see some high public prosecutions of offending companies. Two days later on the 21st August, the Skills Sector Panel met, agreed to use the new basket of indicators and based on this evidence and also further evidence collected by the PCG agreed to removed all the skills from the Shortage Occupation List.
At the end of the day, it wasn't one argument or one piece of evidence that caused the list to be blanked. It was the sum result of our efforts and, in particular, reforming the way that the list is maintained.
That was last Wednesday, ten days later my contract with the PCG has come to an end, but there is still more to do on this. The work goes on and as an IT freelancer and a PCG member I hope that they can build on this success.
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