Several years ago, while on a visit to New Delhi, Britain’s ex-Europe minister Keith Vaz suddenly found all his official engagements cancelled. The reason, as Vaz realised, was that London had proposed a plan to enforce a £1,000 visa-bond on some Indians wishing to travel to Britain. After India’s fury, the plan was dropped.
Now, mysteriously, London has revived the proposal. Under a year-long pilot to begin on November 1, the bond sum has been raised to a hefty £3,000, although the accent remains decidedly on some rather than all Indian travellers. It’s not only Indians though — Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Ghanaians too will be targeted.
Expectedly, New Delhi has expressed its “serious concern” at being labelled a “high risk country” — that makes India a source of thousands of illegal immigrants who enter Britain with valid visas but quietly vanish when it’s time to leave. This week, commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma told British ministers that given the UK-India strategic partnership, the least Britain could have done was to have consulted India on the scheme.
Sharma has reportedly been assured that nothing is set in stone. But the problem this time around is that the scheme is not about to go away. Why? About the only things that are decidedly Conservative about Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government are immigration and austerity. And the British voter, having been promised lowered net migration of “tens of thousands” at the last general election, will want to see evidence of it at the next. The pilot has been timed to perfection. It ends in November 2014 — six months to the general elections, and giving Prime Minister David Cameron enough time to drive home the message that he has been able to bring down net migration to 99,999 or less.
Indications are that he is on his way to achieving that target. Some of the figures are contested: for instance, the government counts students among long-term immigrants, although most of them return to their home countries after completing studies.
But the fact is that net migration (the difference between those entering Britain, and those leaving) has been falling steadily — from 242,000 between 2010-11 to 153,000 between 2011-12, a difference of 89,000.
There are other figures that deserve to be explained for any effort at ‘number messaging.’ Some of the fall in net migration, for instance, is due to more Britons leaving. With Britain avoiding a triple-dip recession by the skin of its teeth (0.3% growth in the first quarter of 2013), thousands have been leaving to find work overseas.
Of those leaving Britain, 58% say they are doing so in search of work. Of them, 64% say they already have a job, while 36% say they are heading off in search of work.
And it is here — the state of the economy — where Cameron appears to have missed a trick with the visa-bond scheme. Britain, and much of Europe would give an arm and a leg to hit India’s 5% growth rate. Austerity or not, alienating an economic powerhouse such as India at this point is no way to ensure economic prosperity.
If the Conservatives can get net migration under control and push the domestic economy out of the doldrums by 2015, then they give themselves a decent shot at winning the next general election. But they will also need to respect India as a real partner on the global stage and take it into confidence rather than whip out surprise announcements. For there are too many good things happening in the relationship between India and Britain to allow them to be soured by the visa-bond scheme.
The intentions are clear. Other than the US, India is the only major country that Cameron has visited twice as PM, and there is no contradiction between his pledge to forge a special relationship with India and his determination to cut immigration. But enforcement of these bonds must be highly selective if Cameron wishes to both protect his political legacy and nurture the British economy.