22 January 2020

Arts and statecraft – ensuring the creative industries continue to thrive post-Brexit

By Alan Bishop and Patrick McCrae

Which sector is larger than the automotive, life sciences, aerospace and oil and gas industries combined; employs more than two million people; is growing at more than twice the rate of the economy as a whole; generates more than £100bn in gross value added; and yet merited hardly a mention in the recent election campaign?

Stumped? The answer is the UK’s creative industries, the least heralded success story of the last 20 years. The sector encompasses the arts and crafts, culture, publishing, advertising, technology, and architecture and design, all of which rely on the exploitation of intellectual property whether it’s by international brands, micro-businesses, self-employed workers or freelancers.

But one of the unintended consequences of Brexit could be to threaten this thriving industry. For the sector to flourish, it needs access to the best international talent; more than one in ten workers in the creative industries are non-UK nationals and more half of those are non-UK EU nationals. For example, around 15% of the 27 staff at leading art consultancy ARTIQ, and 40% of the artists it represents, are not British nationals. Losing that talent would threaten a thriving business, which has paid more than £5m to artists, makers and institutions, 75% of it in the last three years.

Conversely, creative businesses are responsible for more than £27bn of the UK’s annual service exports and our own talent needs to be able to move freely across borders.

The future shape of the UK’s immigration system is therefore crucial to the continuing success of our creative industries. The sector is characterized by its agility – one in three creative workers are freelancers and, in some sectors, such as film and video production, that figure is as high as 50%.

Micro-businesses, which employ fewer than ten people, account for 95% of all companies in the creative industries sector. Many rely on specialist temporary workers and performers as much of their work is project based. Rightly, their focus is on creating great artistic and creative projects – not on wading through the complexities of immigration law.

The Creative Industries Federation has proposed a five-point plan to facilitate the entry of highly talented EU and international workers into Britain, ensuring that Brexit does not trigger a brain drain and cause untold damage to the sector:

  • Agree an industry-led approach to assessing international talent, not solely based on salaries
  • Reduce the cost for temporary workers to enter the UK and give them flexibility to work for multiple employers
  • Negotiate with EU and EEA countries to create a touring visa for UK creatives so they can carry out short-term paid engagements
  • Introduce a freelance visa for freelancers, giving them flexibility to carry out multiple engagements across multiple employers’
  • Implement the government’s proposal for students to remain in the UK for two years after graduation to train and retain creative talent

Now that the dust has settled on the election and the new Conservative Government is legislating to ‘get Brexit done’, we know that a new Australian-style points-based system will be introduced. Our principal concern is that any post-Brexit points-based system for long-term workers should not rely on salary bands to assess the value of non-UK workers so it is encouraging to hear that the Prime Minister wants to scrap the £30,000 salary band, according to reports today.

We will have to await further details of the Government’s plan, but a salary band is a blunt instrument and takes no account of the unique status of the creative industries, where many highly talented individuals earn less than the £30,000 threshold and even if they do it’s not always in the form of a “salary”. We need a much more imaginative approach, coupled with scrapping the immigration skills charge, which places a substantial burden on the industry, especially SMEs, and delivers zero positive benefits.

It is crucial that we continue to attract the best talent from across the globe whilst exporting our best creative people around the world. We must create a flexible immigration system that looks beyond salary and is not inaccessible through cost and bureaucracy. A points-based system needs to focus on the assessment processes and qualities most relevant to our sector.

For temporary workers, the Tier 5 system which enables creatives to fulfil temporary engagements in the UK needs to be reformed to ensure it is accessible to organisations of all sizes. We also need to ensure reciprocal arrangements are agreed with EU member states and other countries so that UK creatives do not become poor relations.

A post-Brexit immigration system needs to recognize that freelancers make up around a third of all workers in the creative industries, compared to 15% across other sectors, and they should therefore be allowed multiple entry into the UK for up to 24 months to undertake multiple contracts across multiple employers. If they secure a full-time job in the UK they should be allowed to easily switch to full-time visas.

Finally, we should put our internationally renowned higher education system at the heart of our immigration system, not deter talented creatives from coming to the UK. In 2016-17, more than 30,000 foreign students were on creative arts and design courses in higher education institutions. These Tier 4 visa holders should be allowed more flexibility around the work they can do when they graduate, which would mean the best global talent stays in Britain.

The Graduate Art Prize, founded by ARTIQ to find the most exciting young artists, was won by Camberwell College of Art graduate Betty Leung, a Chinese-born émigré who came to the UK via Australia and personifies the globalization of the art market in this country. A talent like hers should be encouraged to flourish in Britain, not lost. The Government must not lose its nerve in the face of pressure to reduce numbers; it must implement its commitment to a two-year post-study visa for international students.

“The creative industries punch well above their weight internationally,” CBI director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn noted in a recent report, hailing the sector as a key driver of economic growth. She is right – let’s not put that at risk by depriving the industry of the talent that has made it the envy of the world.

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Alan Bishop is former chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation. Patrick McCrae is chief executive of arts consultancy ARTIQ.