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.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.