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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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.