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. 

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide