Osborne's Chinese visa move shows Tory contradictions on immigration

While trumpeting greater immigration as an economic good in the case of China, ministers are strangling it elsewhere.

A casual observer of the government's actions in the last week could be forgiven for asking whether it believes greater immigration is a good or bad thing. Last Thursday, Theresa May published the Immigration Bill, aimed at creating a "hostile environment" for illegal migrants (many of whom have merely overstayed their visas) but also at burdening legal migrants with new rules and regulations such as a £200 charge to use the NHS. 

But today George Osborne is trumpeting plans to introduce a new visa system making it easier for Chinese business leaders and tourists to visit the UK and to work and study here. In the future, rather than applying for UK visas, Chinese travel agents will only be required to submit the EU’s Schengen visa form (an irony not lost on the government's europhile critics). In addition, ministers will introduce a new 24 hour "super priority" visa service from next summer. The Treasury press release notes that "Chinese students make up the largest group of foreign nationals in UK schools and universities. The UK is also the number one destination for Chinese investment in Europe, attracting nearly £2 billion in the last year alone and more than 600 Chinese businesses who now have a presence in the UK."

The government's clear (and correct) conclusion, on this occasion, is that immigration is an economic good and should be encouraged. But this judgement is entirely at odds with its decision to impose an immigration cap aimed at reducing migration to "tens of thousands" a year. In response to the Chinese visa announcement, Theresa May boasted that "we are continuing to attract the brightest and best to work and study in the UK, while preventing immigration abuse and bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands". But the facts show the former aim is contradicted by the latter.

The reduction in immigration since 2010 has largely been driven by a fall in the number of foreign students, with 56,000 fewer entering the UK (a 23% drop) in the year to September 2012, a decline forecast to have cost the economy £725m (the sector is worth an estimated £8bn).

David Cameron claims that the government has merely "shut down the bogus colleges that were a front for illegal immigration", but the figures show genuine students are being excluded. While visas issued to university students increased by 5% in the year to March 2013, there was a 46% decline in the number issued through further education colleges and English language schools (which act as large feeder institutions to universities) and a 7% decline in those issued by private schools. As Jo Beall, the British Council director for education and society, has noted, "Many students use these courses as a step towards applying to our universities, so it presents a long-term risk if we diminish what was a big recruitment pool of students who had already chosen to study in the UK".  

With ministers unable to restrict EU immigration (unless they leave the club altogether), their only option is to squeeze non-EU migration as hard as it can and that means closing the door to thousands of would-be students (including many from China). Richard Lambert, the Chancellor of Warwick University and the former head of the CBI, has written of how "The UK Border Agency is putting intense pressure on several institutions, including well-run ones, where vice-chancellors claim they are having to account for their international students’ whereabouts almost in real time."

China's status as the world's emerging economic hegemon means the government is relaxed about making the case for greater migration from it. But it cannot do so and simultaneously maintain that its dogmatic immigration cap is not strangling growth. 

George Osborne delivers a speech at Peking University in Beijing earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.