Misguided May’s mess over migration

Published by the ipaper (24th October, 2016)

Paul Saunders was stunned when, after marrying a Cuban earlier this year, he discovered they were banned from living together in Britain. The problem was simple: he does not earn enough as a taxi driver, so under discriminatory rules that restrict poorer people from bringing in foreign spouses, the couple must live apart. Yet many workers in his home city of Hull earn less than the £18,600 bar set by government. And how repellent to have regulations that target only less wealthy members of society.

As Paul says, this is the kind of ‘heartless, unfair and illogical’ edict that causes huge pain for those caught in the snare. An estimated 33,000 Britons fail to earn enough to bring their spouses from overseas to this country. I have spoken to several, all living in regions where incomes are low and who are being cruelly punished for comparative poverty after falling in love with a foreigner.

The threshold is too high for four in 10 British citizens, hitting women especially hard. This vile rule was introduced four years ago by the then Home Secretary Theresa May as part of her doomed effort to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ a year. It was a bizarre move for a Tory party that poses as family friendly, separating thousands of children from one of their parents. Such stupid policies result when politicians govern by headlines rather than principle, as seen so often with the migration clampdown. It will hit many more couples when Britain leaves the European Union.

Instead of splitting up families, there is a manoeuvre on migration that would help ministers get much closer to hitting their daft cap on numbers. It is one supported by a majority of voters. It would aid a key sector of the economy, boost Britain’s soft power around the planet, help developing nations and assist the country’s global position. Yet when floated by Chancellor Philip Hammond before the Treasury select committee last week, it was instantly slapped down by Downing Street.

The idea is simply to stop counting 175,000 foreigners coming to study each year as immigrants, thus removing them from the cap. This sensible move was opposed by May in her previous job; clearly she intends to maintain her obstinate stance as prime minister. She fears, wrongly, that this would be seen as a tactical feint, especially by disgruntled Brexit voters who seem to be the main focus of her government. Instead this issue simply illustrates how panicking politicians can damage national interests.

Few people view students as migrants: they come to study, then almost all leave. Barely 1 per cent overstay and they need fresh visas to work after completing their courses. For all the fuss over immigration, a significant majority of voters oppose curbs on students, with even UKIP backing reclassification. Yet Amber Rudd, the new home secretary, announced fresh restrictions in her risible party conference speech, a proposal overshadowed by the horrific suggestion that businesses should disclose how many foreigners they employ.

This sends out a clear message, amplified by the wretched referendum: Britain is turning its back on tolerance and openness. Already there has been a sharp fall in non-EU students, despite rising numbers of people worldwide opting to study abroad. May leaves on her first trade mission to India next month, yet the number of Indians studying here has halved in four years while soaring in Australia, Canada and the US. Spot the difference between bold talk of post-Brexit Britain as a global player and the dismal reality of corrosive hostility to outsiders.

After the Brexit vote a survey found that more than a third of overseas students said they were less likely to pick a British university. Headlines of rising reported hate crimes and a vote fuelled by fear of foreigners echo around the world. And it is likely those from EU countries will be charged far higher international fees rather than continuing to pay the same as home students, inevitably reducing their numbers. The irony is that the plunging pound makes it easier for foreigners to afford fees of up to £35,000 that subsidise the Britons sitting beside them in tutorials.

Our universities are an amazing success story, precisely the sort of global powerhouses needed if there is any hope of making Brexit a success. The UK has five universities ranked in the top 25, with Oxford hailed the world’s best. This is why overseas students pay a combined £4.2bn to come here, then contribute much the same to the wider economy with spending in shops and pubs. All those young people, returning home with friends and hopefully fond memories, form a vital component of soft power strength.

More than 50 world leaders attended British universities. They can also make the world a better place. Studies show that being educated in a democracy aids the promotion of similar values when students return home, while boosting earnings and skills. Experts also found that more than half our foreign students come from countries receiving aid; how much better if chunks of that misspent cash were diverted into scholarships at British universities.

The crackdown on immigration has already hurt the higher education sector, to the dismay of academics and the delight of slavering rivals abroad. It is hard to think of a more self-harming policy than to extend the restrictions, especially when Brexit will hit universities hard by stemming flows of students and cutting funds from Europe. How much simpler and saner to just remove students from net migration figures. Instead we witness post-Brexit panic from politicians, immune to cries of pain from homes to higher education institutions as they pander to the misanthropes.

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