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.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.