Why Theresa May should back down on immigration bonds

A £3,000 visitor bond will hurt the poorest families, while doing nothing to deal with illegal immigration.

During his latest international tour, David Cameron again told us we are in a "global race". In Pakistan he righty declared, "we want to see the trade and investment relationship between Britain and Pakistan grow." On Tuesday in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister reinforced his message telling us it was "vital that we expand our trade and increase overseas investment into the UK” and that he raised the issue of trade with Pakistan’s new Prime Minister. He had a similar message on his trip to India a few months ago, though as I said at the time his rhetoric often failed to match the reality

Well, here we go again. While David Cameron’s rhetoric abroad is laudable, the reality back home is very different. In recent weeks, Theresa May has been busy briefing Sunday newspapers on her new plan for a £3,000 visitor bond for visitors entering the UK. Which are the countries selected for her pet pilot scheme? You guessed it: India and Pakistan, along with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana. So while David Cameron tells us he wants to develop trade with India and Pakistan, Theresa May lets it be known these countries need a bond scheme for visitor visas because she considers them 'high risk'.

With pressure from her backbenchers on immigration and big promises made at the last general election, the Home Secretary wants to be seen to be tough. No doubt she is keen to create an impression that somehow her £3,000 bond proposal will lower net immigration levels. However, immigration as measured by the International Passenger Survey only counts migrants who plan to stay in the UK for more than a year. Since these visitor visas are only issued for up to six months, the bonds will have no impact on net immigration at all.

Meanwhile, the reaction in those countries we want to deepen our trade with has been less than enthusiastic, placing strain on our economic ties and diplomatic relations. India’s Hindustan Times reported the news with the headline: "UK plans visa bonds for 'high-risk' Asians, Africans", highlighting that Theresa May’s plans only affect immigrants from non-white countries. Pakistan’s Foreign Office has protested against the bond requirement, and a leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that "despite the apparently strong political ties, visa issue has remained a major irritant relationship (sic)". The paper also highlights the fact that "over one million Britons of Pakistani origin have contributed significantly to the deepening of bilateral relations", adding to the insult by this government. Nigeria has retaliated too. One of the country's politicians, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, stated that if the changes go ahead, the government would force Britons to pay £20,000 to enter the country.

So the economic rifts that will be caused by this policy are damaging to say the least. Labour politicians have been urging the government to do more to promote trade. Chuka Umunna, in what I think is a first for a shadow cabinet business spokesman, recently led a trade mission to Africa and has been pointing out the long term investment potential of nations such as Nigeria and Ghana. Chuka reminded us that "Ghana is on course to be the eighth fastest growing economy in the world between 2011 and 2015. The IMF expects the Nigerian economy to grow by 7 per cent this year alone."

Nigeria is the seventh largest country in the world and, according to a UN report, its population is set to exceed that of the United States by 2050. In fact, the west African nation will start to compete with China as the second most populous country in the world.

With such a fast-growing population, infrastructure requirements will be absolutely key to Nigeria’s development and the UK now risks losing engineering and trade links with the country because of the British government’s perceived hostility on this issue.

Similarly, we all know that India is a rising force to be reckoned with. The country's economy is growing at an average of, with the IMF forecasting its 2018 GDP levels at $2,980bn. But despite the Cameron government's rhetoric, visa restrictions are already having an impact on the UK’s economic ties with India, with universities reporting a fall in student numbers. The Home Secretary might as well put up a sign saying the UK isn’t open for business.

When I asked the Prime Minister this week if he thought the bond scheme would help or hinder trade, he told me that Theresa May was looking at bonds in order to deal with 'economic migrants' but the bond scheme is no answer to the problem he wants to solve. There are serious questions about how the scheme will work. A £1,000 bond scheme for visitor visas was considered by the last Labour government but soon dropped for fears that it would be unworkable and unfair to the poorest families, while doing nothing to deal with illegal immigration.

 

In recent days in my own Leicester constituency, diaspora communities have reacted with dismay. Everyone accepts we need a system of managed migration alongside measures to deal with illegal immigration. But a bond scheme will hurt genuine visitors who don’t abuse the system. At a local temple over the weekend, constituents asked me if it was really fair that their relations should have to put up £3,000 to attend a graduation or a family wedding or a funeral, or even just visit an old friend. It’s a fair question, so here’s hoping the Home Secretary backs down.

Theresa May arrives to attend a meeting at Downing Street on May 23, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South. 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.