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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.