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UK: The Conservatives’ battle over immigration, tourists and students

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

 “UK Border” is the sign that greets passengers arriving at Heathrow. The airport is not on the border. It is in a west London suburb. But the wording carries a message: “You are approaching a barrier. Do not expect an easy time.”

The government’s online visa and immigration page is just as forbidding. This week, below the link to visa applications, were three news stories. The first was about a health surcharge for temporary migrants. The second reported on a London-based Moldovan accountant who was fined for providing unregulated immigration advice. The third said that “nearly 800 foreign criminals are being kicked out of the country”.

These are all important issues. But what would it cost, apart from a few buckets of paint and a little computer work, if the government’s information page and the sign at Heathrow — and all Britain’s entry points — said “Welcome to the UK”?

The overwhelming majority of those visiting have no intention of committing crimes or using UK hospitals. They want to do business or have a good time.

But these visitors have been lumped with immigrants. I do not object to immigrants; I am one. But large numbers of Britons do. The Conservatives went into the election repeating their commitment to reduce annual net migration to tens of thousands and they won a majority.

But this government is committed to business too — and tourism is one of the UK’s most important. The industry accounted for 9 per cent of gross domestic product and 10 per cent of employment in 2013, according to figures cited in a Commons committee report in March.

Almost one-third of UK jobs created over the past three years have been in tourist-related businesses.

Tourists have a choice of countries to visit, and they are put off by being told they are not welcome. Some in the previous and current Tory administration understand this. Battles over the balance between controlling immigration and attracting tourists have pitted top Conservatives against each other.

For years, the argument was over visas for Chinese visitors. Tourists from China can apply for a Schengen visa, which gives them the right to travel to 26 European countries. They need a separate visa for the UK, which is not party to the Schengen border-free travel agreement.

It is a hassle. Of Chinese travellers to Europe, 94 per cent apply for a Schengen visa only, Paul Barnes of the UK China Visa Alliance lobbying group told me. The group asked the government to agree to joint UK and Schengen visa applications. In 2012, the Financial Times reported that David Cameron and George Osborne, the chancellor, were frustrated that Theresa May, then — as now — home secretary, had not made progress on this.

She eventually budged. Chinese tourists can now fill in one form, but they still have to make a special visit to a UK-appointed company to be photographed and fingerprinted.

Ms May also proposed visa restrictions for Brazilians, which she put on hold after protests from cabinet members and Robert Halfon, Tory MP and co-chairman of the British-Brazil parliamentary group.

In addition, she abandoned a scheme for a £3,000 bond for visitors from India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

All these proposals left a residue of hurt, as have the government’s policies on foreign students at UK universities — like tourism, a sector of great importance to the British economy.

The government has included foreign students in its immigration target, in spite of representatives from every corner of UK business asking it not to.

It also restricted the right of foreign graduates to work for a limited period after their degrees. The all-party parliamentary group on migration, which includes Conservatives, said some students were instead going to university in Australia.

In January, we reported that Mr Osborne had quashed plans by Ms May to clamp down further.

What will the new government’s direction be? John Whittingdale, the new culture secretary whose brief includes tourism, chaired the committee that produced the report explaining the sector’s importance. Both Mr Osborne and Ms May would like to succeed Mr Cameron. The battles are likely to continue.

Source : The Financial Times

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