Top business leaders and others rounded on the Theresa May government on Wednesday after home secretary Amber Rudd announced plans for new visa curbs, with critics claiming the plans marked the return of the “nasty party”.
The term “nasty party” was coined by Prime Minister May in 2002, when the Conservatives were in opposition. After the June 23 vote for Britain to exit the European Union, leaving the bloc was supposed to make the country more global and open to Commonwealth countries such as India, as was often promised by leaders such as Priti Patel and Boris Johnson.
But Rudd’s plans to tighten norms for Indian and other non-EU professionals and students surprised many, including Indians, prompting charges that the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham - where the plans were set out - had become “increasingly xenophobic”.
London-based Manoj Ladwa, chair of Indians for Labour and a strategist during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 2014 election campaign, told Hindustan Times: “There are many British Indians who were taken in by promises during the EU referendum of a 'sweet deal' for Indian students and professionals should the UK leave the EU.
“The Conservative Party’s announcement (on Tuesday) exposes the fallacy of these promises. The Conservative government has not even put Indian tourists at par with Chinese tourists. Indian tourists are still charged much more for visas with less duration than the Chinese.
“The message coming out from 10 Downing Street is that the UK wants Indian business but not its highly skilled people. This will certainly be problematic for any future trade deal with India,” Ladwa added.
Higher education leaders responded cautiously to Rudd’s plans, but reminded the government of the valuable contribution made by Indian and non-EU students, including adding £7 billion annually to the British economy.
Nicola Dandridge of Universities UK said: “Polling has shown that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. International students come to the UK, study for a period, and then the overwhelming majority go home after their studies.
“International students also enrich our campuses and the experience of UK students, both academically and culturally. Many return home having forged strong professional and personal links in this country that provide long-term, ‘soft power’ benefits for the UK.”
Concerned over the new plans, Sanam Arora of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (UK) said: “My message to May and Rudd is that it's great to hear you will be consulting businesses and universities in the review - but please would you consult those who happen to be a key stakeholder in this as well - ie, the international students themselves?
“The Indian student community is the second highest consumer of the fourth largest export of the UK, so it's about time they got the consumer rights that go along with being the consumer,”she added.
According to Andy Burnham, shadow Home secretary, the tone of the Conservative conference had become increasingly xenophobic: “Theresa May has presided over the return of the nasty party. Whether it’s doctors, migrants or Europe, the Tories are blaming anyone but themselves for their failure.
“The idea of British companies producing lists of foreign workers runs counter to everything that this country has ever stood for. It would be divisive, discriminatory and risks creating real hostility in workplaces and communities,” he added.
Business groups also reacted warily to the proposals, warning they would limit their members' ability to recruit people with the right skills for the job: "Companies do so much in the UK to train up their workers and, of course, look for local hires before going to the overseas market," said Adam Marshall, acting director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.
Referring to Rudd’s plans to encourage British companies to train local workers instead of hiring non-EU professionals, the Confederation of British Industry said the firms already invest £45 billion a year training local workers, but skills gaps remained.
Conservative MP Neil Carmichael, chair of the House of Commons education select committee, urged Rudd to reconsider the plan. “This unsettling policy would drive people, business and compassion out of British society and should not be pursued any further. People coming to the UK to work hard, pay their taxes and make a contribution to our society should be celebrated not shamed. This kind of divisive politics has no place in 21st Century Britain," he said.