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New stringent immigration laws will hurt Britain's economy

New curbs on visas planned by Britain will harm the nation when its economy is showing signs of growth.

analysis Updated: Jul 17, 2015 01:21 IST
The first Cameron government failed to deliver on its promise of reducing annual net migration to tens of thousands from hundreds of thousands, and by the time of the 2015 election, that promise became an ‘aim’. (Reuters)
The first Cameron government failed to deliver on its promise of reducing annual net migration to tens of thousands from hundreds of thousands, and by the time of the 2015 election, that promise became an ‘aim’. (Reuters)

Eric Hobsbawm, the legendary historian, made several insightful comments in Cambridge in October 2010 during one of his last appearances before passing away in 2012. Speaking at a seminar to honour the memory of Marxist historian Victor Kiernan, he referred to the spending review announced by chancellor George Osborne a few days before, including deep cuts in defence and other departments, and concluded that it was for the first time in over 300 years that Britain had decided to hold back on its engagement with the world on such a scale.

The historic turn towards insularity was evident from the early days of the first David Cameron government from 2010 to 2015. We will never know what judgement of history Hobsbawm would have passed on that government’s performance at home and abroad, but it is unlikely to be positive. Much has been said about its impact on foreign policy, defence and other areas of governance, but one area in which India — and in turn, Britain — has faced collateral damage is immigration, even though the real target of public ennui in recent years has been large-scale migration from within the European Union (EU).

In 2015, the turn towards insularity is increasingly bordering on the parochial. Now in its second incarnation and unfettered by compulsions of coalition politics, Britain has announced plans for another round of restrictions on Indian and other non-EU citizens. The reality is that as a member of the EU, Britain cannot do anything to restrict migration from within the grouping. It is public ire over this migration that has driven the rise of the UK Independence Party, and is also at the root of the Conservative promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by 2017.

The first Cameron government failed to deliver on its promise of reducing annual net migration to tens of thousands from hundreds of thousands, and by the time of the 2015 election, that promise became an ‘aim’. But driven mostly by the rhetoric of the tabloids and keen to be seen as tough on immigration, Conservative ministers pointed to the many restrictions they had placed on non-EU migration between 2010 and 2015: Introducing a salary threshold for nurses and other professionals, the annual limit of 20,700 work-related visas, closure of the post-study work visa for students, a salary threshold for British citizens marrying non-EU citizens, and new rules for intra-company transfers and doctors. As Britain came to be seen as unwelcoming to immigrants, Indian doctors and students have been looking elsewhere in recent years.

The government’s drive against bogus colleges, bogus students and sham marriages has been well received, but Indian citizens have been among the most affected by these curbs. Over 1,200 Indian nurses who began work in the National Health Service in 2011 onwards will not be allowed to apply for permanent residency after the mandatory six years in 2017 unless they reach the annual salary level of 35,000 pounds. This is an unrealistic level for most nurses, and health officials have already sounded the alarm at the prospect of thousands of Indian and other non-EU nurses being forced to leave in 2017.

The closure of the post-study work visa has already led to a major drop in Indian students, but this has not led to a major drop in the overall number of non-EU students, mainly because the shortfall from India has been more than covered by a growing number of Chinese students. It is not yet established that closing the visa — based mainly on the ‘British jobs for British workers’ principle — has actually led to an increase in employment of British workers, or have the jobs been taken over by EU migrants, who are free to work in Britain?

Another impact was reflected in a documentary play ‘My Skype Family’ on July 4 in London. It depicted stories of families torn apart by Family Migration Rules 2012 that stipulate that a Briton seeking to sponsor a non-EU spouse should have a minimum salary of 18,600 pounds, the threshold rising to 22,400 pounds for families with a child and another 2,400 pounds for each further child. One of the stories depicted was of Kelly and Amit who have been separated for over two years and whose daughter has not yet met her Indian father. Campaigners say 43% of employees in Britain do not earn enough to meet the salary requirement. A large number of non-EU families have been caught up in the rules, so falling in love with a foreigner now comes with a hefty price tag.

Non-EU professionals are the latest on the block. In June, Cameron announced what was called ‘a new blueprint…to reduce demand for migrant labour’, raising concerns among nearly 800 Indian companies based in Britain as well British companies who find it difficult to recruit for highly specialised jobs. The ‘blueprint’ is of particular concern for Indians since it includes more curbs on intra-company transfer visas that are used by Indian companies to transfer employees from India. The plans were announced when the annual limit of 20,700 work visas was reached for the first time since December 2010. Reaching the limit is a reflection of growth in the British economy, but the new plans expected to be rolled out next year may hit further growth.

As British and Indian officials deliberate on ‘big ticket deliverables’ during the November visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a return of the post-study work visa is among areas with potential for high optics. The Scottish government has already been pushing London to allow the facility for Indian and other non-EU students in Scotland. The Cameron government’s gushing enthusiasm to work with Modi should not be restricted to trade and economy, but needs to be matched with similar enthusiasm on the ground and signal a return to the more enduring path of engagement with a globalised world.