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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.