For many years, Britain has believed that inward migration contributes to the vibrancy of our society and the success of our economy — and no country has contributed more to British life than India. Our philosophy hasn’t changed. But the context has — both globally and domestically.
Globally, we face threats from international terrorism and cross-border crime, and the government has to provide protection of our border to minimise the risk of harm to people living in Britain — including those who have moved to the country in recent decades. Within Britain, we need to manage a densely populated island with hard-pressed infrastructure — with larger numbers of people from around the world eager to come to our country. And we need to ensure the harmonious development of a society, which is diverse: fewer than half the children at school in London speak English at home as their first language.
What does this mean for our approach to immigration? We continue to want (and need) people from India and elsewhere to come to Britain to study, to work and for pleasure. But we must have effective arrangements to ensure that those without a legitimate reason to come to Britain aren’t allowed to do so. Getting this balance right requires four things.
First, a high quality visa. Since December 12, we have been issuing ‘Biometric Visas’ (BV) in India. We are the only country issuing BVs in India through commercial partners — allowing people to apply at any one of 12 centres across the country (from Kochi to Kolkata). This is part of a programme which has been introduced in over 130 countries around the world. The system requires a 10-finger scan and a digital photograph. These are more reliable than traditional visas and, therefore, better for both the applicant and the British government — but not for those trying to abuse the system. The BVs also help in the battle against identity fraud, where the victims are more often individual citizens than governments.
Second, we need greater simplicity. Currently, there are some 80 different categories of visa for those wishing to work or study in Britain. This makes life difficult for applicants and visa officers alike. In 2008, we will start introducing a new approach, called the ‘Points Based System’, under which applications will be judged against clear, simple and objective criteria — in one of only five categories — better reflecting the areas in which Britain wants to attract skills from overseas. This system will be working across the world by the end of 2009.
Third, we want, as far as practicable, to shift the responsibility for visa applications from those applying overseas to their sponsors in Britain. We will increasingly expect organisations in Britain to vouch for those they invite to our country, whether to study or work. These institutions will have a strong interest in ensuring that the applicants they sponsor are bona fide, as they will almost all want to continue bringing in foreign students or workers for many years to come. Our assessment will be as much (or more) about the quality of the British institution as of the applicant.
This approach will also help weed out bogus organisations which, for example, might be trying to get people into Britain to work illegally — an awful fate for those who find themselves powerless to prevent their exploitation because they have no legal status.
For individual visitors, it is less easy to move the responsibility to a sponsor in Britain. We have, therefore, suggested that those inviting individuals to Britain might be asked to deposit a bond — repayable when the applicant leaves the country as intended. This is one of many ideas on which we’ve invited comments over the next 12 weeks — if there are better ways to achieve our objective, we’ll be happy to consider them. Other issues under consultation are whether the standard length for a tourist visa should be three months — in line with the US and many European countries; whether there should be a group tourist visa; and whether there should be a separate family visitor visa.
Fourth, our approach to integration within British society needs to change. Historically, we believed that integration would happen organically, without intervention by the government. In most cases, this proved correct — including for many thousands of Indian families. However, in certain areas this philosophy hasn’t worked.
There is a small number of people who live in Britain but feel alienated from the society around them. That is bad for the individuals and bad for British society. So we are looking at ways to ensure that those wanting to come and live in Britain are properly prepared — in particular through having an ability to speak English and an adequate understanding of our country and its values. From my perspective, this sort of approach is likely to make the life of those settling in Britain better and I don’t believe it will deter genuine applicants wanting to come to our country.
Britain is having to adjust its approach to immigration in response to a changing environment. Our aim is to retain Britain’s position as a destination of choice for Indians wishing to travel overseas for work, study or tourism, while introducing simpler and more effective visa systems. And we are taking this forward through a transparent process of consultation which will allow all those with an interest to have their views heard.
(Richard Stagg is the British High Commissioner to India)