Today in the main chamber, MPs debate the Immigration Bill. Meanwhile, in Westminster Hall Priti Patel MP has tabled a debate on immigration. I paste below the contribution I wish to make to these debates.
‘Net migration cut by a third’ has become a key campaigning mantra in recent months for the Conservative Party and will no doubt be heralded as one of the government’s central achievements as we approach the 2015 General Election. Important work has been done to crack down on immigration abuses – bogus colleges, sham marriages, fake students, health tourists and the like. The government has also been striving to address some of the so-called ‘pull’ factors which have hitherto made the UK such an appealing destination for those who seek to abuse generous Western health and benefits systems.
Nevertheless, we should be wary of the notion that the imposition of a cap and a broader clampdown means ‘job done’ on immigration. For all the talk of a squeeze on numbers, all too many Britons experience a different daily reality on the streets and read a different story in their newspapers. Meanwhile, precisely the type of people we seek to attract to our nation – successful business people and investors, the highly skilled, top students and high-spending tourists – are encountering difficulties in entering the UK just as we talk of the need to compete in the global race. I fear that this disparity between the headline figure and reality is breeding cynicism while doing real economic damage.
I appreciate time is tight in this popular debate, so let me focus on three key concerns of mine – the entry of business people into the UK; student visas; and the downsides we are seeing in my central London constituency of EU migration.
Let me start with EU migration if I may. In January 2007 I led a debate here in the House of Commons on the possible impact the accession of Romania and Bulgaria would have on London. In particular I sought to increase the funding available to Westminster City Council who were being overburdened by the significant increase in rough sleeping, crime and anti-social behaviour following the 2004 accession of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic. Unfortunately many of the things I warned about in that debate have come to pass as Romania and Bulgaria have edged closer to fully-fledged EU membership.
Many of us will have seen first-hand the Roma gypsy encampments that sprung up around Marble Arch during last year’s Olympics. Some of the people living in those encampments were part of an organised begging operation deliberately targeting the lucrative West End tourist market. That encampment has since become merely the most visible example of a growing problem, with similar camps appearing outside the Imperial War Museum and in the 9/11 memorial in Grosvenor Square to name but two sites. Meanwhile, I am receiving weekly reports from exasperated constituents who find spontaneous bedrooms in their doorways, as well as litter and excrement in garden squares, and are daily harassed by aggressive beggars. Some local residents have even witnessed defecation in broad daylight.
Those living in these eyesore encampments have no intention of legally exercising their treaty rights to be here. Nevertheless, because of EU rules, they are incredibly difficult to remove. Westminster City Council and our local borough policing teams are now diverting vast resource into street cleaning operations, translation services, operations to tackle begging and organised crime and even transport to send problem migrants back to their countries of origin. This is mostly local taxpayers’ money paying the financial cost of national policy decisions. Until these kinds of problems are tackled, until we find a way of stemming the vast tide of people coming from the EU, I am afraid government declarations to have gotten a grip of immigration will mean precious little to the average Briton.
On that note, a number of constituents have written to alert me to schemes in ailing southern European economies to give non-EU migrants a fast track to citizenship if they invest in their nations. They know how enticing a prize such citizenship is because it gives the applicant the potential prospect to move to any country within the Union. It provides yet another example of how difficult it will be to keep headline migration numbers under control without resorting to a clampdown on the highly skilled from non-EU nations.
Which brings me to my other concerns. I continue to be lobbied by business people and those in the education sector about the coalition’s visa regime which is deterring the highly skilled from engaging with the UK. Since it took office in 2010, the coalition has rightly made building the United Kingdom’s trade and export sector a core part of its economic strategy. At the same time, foreign investment into the UK remains a hugely important source of financing, helping to support infra-structure development, employment and economic growth.
However, those who wish to do business with the UK currently face a series of unnecessary obstacles – despite the government’s best intentions. These barriers include the perceived complexity of the UK visa system which is deterring high value business investors, visitors and workers, together with resourcing issues at the UK’s borders and within certain embassies overseas, and the perceived lack of capacity at UK airports.
The City of London Corporation, who receive regular complaints from business, believes there are practical steps that could be taken to improve this first interaction with our visa system. They include availability of own-language application forms and Schengen equivalence. They welcome the announcement on the latter following the Chancellor’s recent visit to China but the ambiguity of the Home Office’s subsequent statement has also been noted. The government must work swiftly and clearly to make that announcement reality.
Currently, Chinese applicants may have to travel up to 500 miles to appear in person at a visa-processing centre. Even after April 2013, applicants have had to submit to finger-printing and face a non-refundable charge of £70. They also have to supply a letter from their employer to prove they have leave from work to travel. It is again perhaps not surprising that one study found nearly a third of Chinese potential visitors abandon the visa process and instead visit destinations other than the UK.
The future is not just about China though. There are anecdotal reports that in countries like Brazil applicants are faced with taking several days off work to get visas processed. Anyone who needs to travel regularly is understandably reluctant to hand over their passport for an unspecified period of time. The City Corporation has been told that in some centres passports can be surrendered for up to three to six months without further feedback from UKBA staff as to when to expect a return of documents.
In contrast to these issues, key competitor countries have since 2010 sought to simplify their procedures. For example, a visa for Australia can be processed in just 24 hours. The USA – which has also been widely criticised for its visa bureaucracy – has also overhauled its systems after President Obama gave the State Department sixty days to reassess its visa regimes for Brazil and China.
Turning to the issue of student visas, before which I must declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of the London School of Commerce.
Britain’s world-beating education sector draws fee-paying students from across the globe, many of whom go back to their home nations as tremendous ambassadors for the UK for decades to come as they build wealth in their homelands. A 2011 report by the Home Affairs Select Committee suggested that 27 contemporary foreign heads of state were educated in the UK. Our universities have hitherto been exceptionally good at tapping that market – 9.9% market share in 2009, with export earnings of £7.9 billion. The overall value of international students to London and the UK, by the government’s own figures, is believed to exceed £20bn. There is huge potential for that to grow.
There is no cap on international student numbers, but the government’s explicit objective has been to reduce student numbers as a means of bringing net migration to under 100 000 by the next election. The treatment of student and post-study work visas has now become a cause of regular complaint amongst top universities in my constituency. At one elite central London institution, the number of applications for post-graduate taught programmes from Indian and Pakistani students is down by 14% and 11% respectively since future employment prospects are a key motivator in these markets. The other is facing recruitment difficulties in disciplines such as accounting, economics, finance, management and law and finding it increasingly difficult to obtain transfers for high level researchers in order to maintain academic staff of the highest international repute.
Prospective overseas staff now perceive that it is difficult to get a visa for the UK and prefer to move to the US and Australia instead. Other complaints surround the extortionate visa fees and enormous forms that need to be completed that compare unfavourably with our Western competitors.
It is a cliché that a reputation may take years to build up but can be lost in an instant. However, the UK runs a real risk of losing its hard won reputation as a country that welcomes trade, investment and talented students from around the world at a time when the need for international expertise and capital is very high.
There is a need for a change of rhetoric. Misperceptions are as damaging as actual practical barriers. The government rightly wishes to ensure the UK is “open for business”. A passionate re-statement of that goal, combined with practical improvements to the visa process and the operation of the borders, should generate significant trade, investment and diplomatic benefits.