We must avoid mixed messages on migration

by Gavin Barwell MP

In July 2010, one of the Prime Minister’s first major foreign visits was to India. He made it clear that our relationship with India is one of Britain’s most important. He was right. Not only do we share deep historic, social and cultural ties, but boosting trade with this emerging economic titan will generate jobs and growth for Britain.

Now in 2013, the Prime Minister is making his second trip, the only world leader to have visited India twice in the past three years. The priority that he personally - and by extension we as a nation - attach to India is self-evident.

Or at least it should be.

But we are running the risk of sending very mixed messages because of the way in which we conduct the debate in this country about immigration and the way in which the UK Border Agency administers the system.

The Prime Minister’s message is spot on. Interviewed on India’s Sunrise TV before his trip, he said, “The fact is today, as we stand, and this is going to be the case going forward, there is no limit on the number of students who can come from India to study at British universities, no limit at all. All you need is a basic English qualification and a place at a British university. And what’s more, after you’ve left a British university, if you can get a graduate-level job there is no limit to the amount of people who can stay and work, or the time that they can stay at work.”

But there is evidence that this is not the message that has been getting through and that the reality for Indians trying to come to Britain to study or do business can be depressingly different.

The latest figures show a 24% drop in the numbers of students coming from India in the past year with a 28% fall in post-graduates - the first time there has ever been a fall.

This is hitting the UK where it hurts. An analysis by the Migration Matters Trust based on government figures puts the cost to the UK economy at £169 million. That means lower growth, fewer jobs and a heavier burden on British nationals struggling to pay down the deficit built up by the last government.

In business, one of the areas of greatest untapped potential with India is inward investment. Investment by Indian companies abroad has almost tripled in the past year and Britain should be well placed to benefit.

But an analysis by the Migration Matters Trust of the most recent figures from UK Trade & Investment, the government body responsible for attracting foreign investors, shows a worrying direction of travel. In 2010/11, there were 97 projects in the UK funded by Indian investment, generating 6,096 jobs. In 2011/12 (the latest year for which we have figures) there were 81 projects, generating 5,454 jobs. This represents a fall of 17% in projects and 11% in jobs at a time when Indian investment abroad is growing substantially.

The reasons cited for difficulties in our trading relationship with India are familiar, as Boris Johnson found out last year when he visited India. Sanjaya Baru, a former media director for Manmohan Singh the Indian Prime Minister, summed up the business view when he said recently that the UK Border Agency demanded “too many documents” and the process was “intimidatory and very expensive.” Although the overall volume of our trade with India is growing, the question is how much greater would it be if our immigration system was less bureaucratic and if everyone followed the Prime Minister’s lead and sent out a clear, unambiguous message that we are open for business?

Across education and business there are two lessons we need to draw from our recent experience with India.

First, there’s nothing wrong with having rigorous immigration controls. No-one thinks that we should be a soft touch, not least the Indian government who face their own distinct challenges in this area. People must be who they say they are and be coming to Britain for legitimate reasons. But the process needs to be efficient, consistent and fair. And visitors need to feel this in their experience.

Second, the tone of our domestic debate on immigration matters internationally. It’s no good the Prime Minister committing so much of his time to beating the drum for Britain and telling the world we are open for business if every time we talk about immigration domestically it is always in terms of it being a problem, of not wanting people to come here. We need a more nuanced debate. My constituents are concerned about levels of immigration, but they’re not opposed to tourists coming here, foreign students studying at our great universities and foreign businesses investing here.

The Prime Minister’s visit will help build new bridges with India but unless we learn these two lessons, we won’t reap the full benefits of his hard work.