Why Tories ought to hate the immigrant health tax

Another week, another bad week to be an immigrant in the UK. With the addition of this so-called preventative measure against "health tourism", the government has put a huge sign on the door of Britain saying foreigners aren't welcome.

This week's knee-jerk policy to appease our grandparents is a £200 a year added to the cost of non-EU migrants visas to cover the costs of their healthcare when inside the UK. Jeremy Hunt, the Tory Minister responsible for the bill, claims this will prevent an epidemic of "health tourism". You'd think Hunt would be more sympathetic to the plight of foreigners likely to need medical care, given his well known love of Australian octogenarian visitors.

That's one of the many ironies of the policy, of course. While it's designed and marketed as dealing with some kind of incredibly rare edge case - someone like Bimbo Ayelebola, the Nigerian single mum of quintuplets, the bulk of the people who will end up paying it are the New York lawyer, the Australian student, the Indian entrepreneur - the kind of immigrants who in theory, we want. As usual with this sort of measure, the largely imaginary people it's designed to stop either won't pay it, or will pay the small levy and be health tourists anyway  - £200 looks pretty cheap compared to the average hospital bill.

It also doesn't do anything to stop the kind of low skilled migration that does apparently worry people on doorsteps and keeps Nigel Farage on Question Time, because a huge amount of that sort of migration comes through the EU, or is illegal anyway.

I mean, obviously, the policy is incredibly stupid on its own terms, even before you go into the maths - in 2011-2012 the NHS spent £33m on treating foreign nationals, of which around £21m was recovered (through directly charging them or via health insurance). The remaining £12m as a proportion of the £109bn NHS budget is almost negligible. It will be interesting to see how this ahem, "giant" £12m subsidy to foreigners can be reconciled with the costs of administering it, not to mention the added costs of untreated foreign nationals walking around with potentially infectious diseases. Still, I suppose Jeremy Hunt can avoid getting TB by hiding in a bush. Of course, it could be designed as a revenue raising exercise in the first place, as there are as many as five million people living here who it will affect.

Earning an extra £200 per person probably sounds pretty tempting, and in theory, it'll pull support from UKIP, and that is probably what motivated the announcement in the first place. My question is, why should these people pay extra? The most ludicrous part of this whole package of measures is that it's predicated on the notion that these foreigners aren't paying their way. Of course, the vast bulk of non-EU foreigners who live in the UK are here on work visas - so they of course pay tax, national insurance, all the rest of it. 

On that note, here's an email I recently received:

Dear friends, family and colleagues, 

As many of you will know, I married Kristina last month, who I met when we were both students at the National Film and Television School. We love each other and want to spend our lives together. 

We both wanted to start out in our respective careers (animation and cinematography) in the UK, but are now coming up against the misguided, cruel and fundamentally stupid new visa rules for the husbands and wives of British citizens. Kristina, who is from the US, may very well be forced to leave the country before 21st April, when her student visa expires - in a week's time - because we don't meet the new financial threshold, which is three times higher than it was before July 2012.

Under the current rules, introduced last July, 47% of employed British citizens would not be able to keep a non-EU spouse in the UK. It's affecting thousands of people, but they are a small part of overall immigration. The government seems to be pandering to extremists by pledging to reduce immigration, and the stringent new rules in the area of marital visas are an attempt to make a small reduction in the figures any which way they can, given the fact that most immigration is from the EU, which they cannot control. Non-EU immigrants have always had their visas stamped 'no recourse to public funds', so the government's argument about wanting to reduce the burden on the state makes no sense. 

But something more fundamental is wrong here: the government is effectively saying that I only really had the right to marry a British or EU citizen, since as it stands, I seem to be penalized for marrying someone of a non-European nationality. Marriage rights have been stratified, plain and simple, and by being under a certain income threshold people are being treated as second class citizens.  

It's a common story - so much for the value of traditional marriage, eh?

While that's all important - and hopefully enough that this silly idea won't survive the eight-week consultation it's due to go through - the thing that strikes me about this policy is how much business leaders hate it. It's the cherry on top of the vast sundae of the other anti-immigration measures that have been proposed and implemented in the last few years - everything from Cleggbonds, to language requirements, to rules about how much people's spouses have to be earning in order to qualify for marital residency. 

Indeed, if you go to most businesses, and ask them for the one supply side reform they'd like, they won't tell they'd like to be able to sack people more easily, or wish they could pay less than the minimum wage, they'll tell you they'd like to make it easier to hire foreigners. Currently, most businesses will reject non-EU nationals as soon as they hear they need a visa because it's too much red tape to sponsor an application. Even if people are willing to put up with the uncertainty of the hire based on a bureaucrat's say-so, then usually firms will only want to go through the shocking incompetence of the UK border authority once.

Even if you can find a firm willing to sponsor you, the fees for the individuals fees are enormous - £600 every six months is not uncommon, especially if you have to renew your contract regularly. £200 a year on top of that perhaps doesn't sound like much to millionaire Jeremy Hunt, and people are bandying around phrases like "it's only £16 a month", but it's not like there's an easy direct debit option to spread your payments. An £800 upfront cost for a Visa, plus a bundle of other red tape, is enough to put off exactly the sort of people we want - skilled, hard-working valuable migrants, like students who have studied here who want to stay on. 

Anyway, as you can see, individually, these measures might almost make sense to your great aunt who "just thinks Britain isn't British anymore". But taken together, they add up to a huge sign on the door of Britain saying foreigners aren't welcome, and they only hurt the kind of law-abiding, hard working migrants the average over 60 on the doorstep professes to like. This is a huge problem - turning the cold shoulder to migrants is costing us billions, and pulling hugely skilled individuals out of the economy. It's about time all those politicians who bang on about kickstarting growth through supply side reform come out from under their rocks and make the case for the benefits of immigration. 

Look, no hands! Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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.