Start-up founders have warned that Britain risks losing its position as the “tech hub of Europe” because of the poor handling of visa applications at the Home Office.
Entrepreneurs have said that the delays in issuing UK visas are disrupting their growth plans and funding rounds.
Louis Knight-Webb, 24, co-founder of the London-based Bloop, a code search engine, said his company had been unable to recruit highly skilled engineers from the US and Vietnam because it was still waiting for its visa sponsor licence, which it applied for in September.
He said: “We’re doing a very new thing, which is like machine learning applied to computer source code. So there’s only maybe 50 people in the world who even know what that is.”
He said he complained to the Home Office about the delay in receiving the application result, which they were told should take two months, but received no response.
Abhishek Sen, 36, a Canadian former software engineer at Apple and WeTransfer who co-founded Number Eight, a software development company in London, said he has been unable to attend crucial meetings to secure funding since he is still waiting to hear back from an application for indefinite leave to remain, which he submitted in January.
Sen first came to the UK six years ago on an entrepreneur visa for foreign nationals who want to start a business in the UK. His start-up develops mobile device artificial intelligence software to offer advertisers the ability to target individuals without using any form of identifiers that would infringe privacy, and it raised its first round of funding in 2018. It is now on its third fundraising round.
However, Sen said he had been unable to attend meetings with prospective investors overseas because he is unable to leave the country while the application is pending. “One investor trip can make a huge difference,” Sen said.
Qatalog, a start-up aiming to build the infrastructure for a different way of working, said that the UK “should be bending over backwards to attract top-tier software engineers and product designers” in order to ensure the country “retains its crown as Europe’s tech hub”.
However, it said it was struggling to operate from the UK with a global workforce when overseas employees had not been able to secure standard visitor visas in time for two events, including a get-together for its engineers and product designers in January and an all-company offsite, or meet-up, in April.
Tariq Rauf, 32, founder of Qatalog, said: “We’re leveraging global, highly skilled individuals to build essentially a great UK company, and what has happened several times now is that we have tried to get the team together in the UK and it’s been enormously difficult, despite adhering to the waiting times that they suggest, despite engaging very expensive lawyers to help us through the process. I don’t know if we should do another offsite in the UK.”
Start-up founders have said that the issues started before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and the government’s subsequent launch of a Homes for Ukraine and Ukraine Family schemes to help people fleeing the country, which has overwhelmed the Home Office.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said: “The UK’s tech sector is growing and needs to be agile and fast-moving. But that means these endless bureaucratic delays from the Home Office are a nightmare . . . They need to sort out these shambolic delays as this is letting the whole country down.”
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said it was “prioritising” applications via the Ukraine schemes “in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, so other applications for non-Ukrainians have taken longer to process”.
She added: “We continue to process visa applications as quickly as possible and are working hard to deliver the people’s priorities of getting businesses to invest in the domestic workforce while attracting the skills we need from around the world.”