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“Theresa May is economically illiterate when it comes to immigration” – Lord Bilimoria

Cobra Beer tycoon Lord Karan Bilimoria has described Home Secretary Theresa May as “economically illiterate” when it comes to immigration and expressed serious concerns at the government’s treatment of everyone from curry chefs and nurses to international students.

In an interview with the UKAsian, Lord Bilimoria – who was recently appointed President of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) – reiterated calls for overseas students to be taken out of the government’s net migration targets.

The life peer is one of a string of top entrepreneurs who have warned that the government’s controversial crackdown on international students – including the scrapping of the Post Study Work (PSW) visa and draconian restrictions on working – coupled with the often venomous rhetoric against immigration is harming the British economy and damaging perceptions of Britain abroad.

The Hyderabad-born millionaire was particularly scathing about Mrs May whose time in office has seen a dramatic decline in the number of international students from outside the European Union as well as such measures as the “Go Home or Face Arrest” vans in London.

Many international students – and other migrants from outside the EU – say they are being unfairly targeted as the government struggles to stem the flow of migrants from Europe. 

The result of which is that an increasing number of non-EU migrants are finding it ever-more difficult to travel to the UK or remain here.

Under new measures announced by Mrs May, international students will be required to leave Britain as soon as their studies are complete.  Foreign nurses, meanwhile, will be required to earn more than £30,000 if they are to remain in the UK.  And the list goes on.

The UKAsian caught Lord Bilimoria in an impassioned mood.

On his own experiences as an international student in the UK:

I’ve been speaking about international student affairs particularly with regards to immigration now for a while.  I was an international student myself when I came over to this country as a 19-year-old for my higher education and I know what it’s like to be an international student in the UK.  I know how valued being an international student is for someone coming from abroad and how British higher education is regarded overseas.  It’s very prestigious and very special and it’s great to have the opportunity to study here.  However, I also know how expensive it is to study in Britain.  Not only the cost of the course but the living expenses.  I had to get a number of scholarships.  For example I’m a Tata scholar and I managed to raise the rest of the money – some of them were loans, some of them were grants, some was from family.  So when the government allowed students to work while they were studying that was a huge boost because not only does it give students the work experience that is so vital, they earn some money to help pay for their education. 

Then in 2007 the Post Study Work (PSW) visa was brought out in England and Wales.  It was an excellent measure because it’s a huge advantage for a foreign student to have the ability to work for two years, to gain that work experience to build the relationships with Britain and to earn some money to pay for the expense they have incurred in gaining that education.  Sadly the coalition government in 2010 reversed everything.  They’ve brought in the ability to work but in a very difficult way where you are given a few months to try and find a job after you graduate.  You also have to earn a certain salary and get a company to sponsor you.  The hurdles are so much that very few international students are able to stay on and work.

On public attitudes:

Unfortunately this is completely out of synch with what the British public feel.  There have been surveys done which show very conclusively that an overwhelming majority of the public feel that international students should be allowed to stay on and work after graduation.  So I feel very strongly that the government and in particular this Home Secretary Theresa May have got it absolutely wrong on immigration and particularly with regards to international students. 

On “Bad Immigration”

Illegal immigration – which we see everyday – needs to be handled and cracked down on very strongly and I think everyone would agree on that.  However it’s the good immigration that is suffering because all immigrants are being tarred with the same brush and that is wrong and it is harming our country and harming our economy.  For years I’ve been telling this government, bring back exit checks.  Tony Blair removed exit checks in 1998 so in the intervening years we know who’s come into the country but we don’t know who has left.  So how do you know if someone has overstayed.  How can you track down someone who has overstayed if you don’t know if they have left?  It’s basic because it’s a simple technology that is in place in most countries around the world.  In fact there are several excellent Indian IT companies based here in Britain who could provide the technology for it where every passport – EU and non-EU – should be scanned when someone comes into the country and every passport is scanned when people leave the country.  Now the government is finally saying that they will bring exit checks but I don’t think they are bringing it in as comprehensive a manner as is necessary. 

If we bring in rigorous exit checks we would have much more control over our borders.  That’s the first thing I would do if I was the Home Secretary or was in charge of immigration.  The next thing I would do is to clamp down on illegal immigration in a very strong manner because that needs to be worked on.  Bogus colleges, need to be shut down.  But why should our 150 universities, of which many are the best in the world, be tarred with the same brush? 

On the rise of UKIP:

There are so many misconceptions about immigration and that is why the immigration rhetoric of this government and in particular Mrs May, which unfortunately the Prime Minister seems to back up.  It’s so damaging because the perception is put out that all immigration is bad.  And of course Nigel Farage completely fuelled this in the run up to the General Election.  But where is Nigel Farage today?  He couldn’t win his own parliamentary seat.  UKIP won a grand total of ONE seat.  But the danger is that they had 13 percent of the vote.  13 percent of the people of this country subscribed to his rhetoric.  That is frightening.  And that rhetoric fuelled the behaviour of people like Theresa May.  And that is wrong and dangerous.  Good immigration has helped this country for decades.  Britain would not be the 5th largest economy in the world today, Britain would not be one of the most successful countries in the world were it not for immigration.  That is a fact. 

On those vans and those bonds…

In every facet of British life – be it economics, academia, business, sport, culture – immigration has helped this country to be where it is today.  But now this immigration rhetoric is damaging all that good immigration and the amazing contribution it has made to this country.  When you say things like we are going to introduce a £3000 bond for people visiting from South Asia and Africa, it sets off alarm bells everywhere.  I travel to India several times a year on business and I know how damaging it was even though the measure was withdrawn straight away.  Then, we had those vans going around London demanding illegal immigrants to go home.  Even Nigel Farage disagreed with that one!  Then to tell international students to get out the moment they finish their degrees.  Even George Osborne had to come in and shut Mrs May down, saying that would not be in the Conservative’s manifesto.   

Now if you look at the good immigration, there are a huge number of international students in our universities.  I’m the chancellor of the University of Birmingham.  We have a very high proportion of international students.  Then you have the academics.  In our top universities, 30% of all academics are foreign.  Without that we would not have the excellence that we have at our universities.  Who is going to be the next president of the Royal Society, the most eminent position in all of academia?  Sir Venki Ramakrishnan who is a Nobel Laureate from Trinity College Cambridge.  We need people like that.  He could easily be in America.  In fact, we are competing with American universities like Harvard which have endowments running into the billions of dollars.  Our higher education spending is nothing compared to that.  And on of top of that we have to fight immigration rules such as those brought in by Mrs May.

More misconceptions…

The number of South Asian students to the UK has fallen by half in the last five years.  Foreign students bring in 14 billion pounds a year to the British economy.  It’s one of our biggest exports.  So the financial aspect is vital.  Then you have the enrichment of our own students with the experience of living and studying and working alongside foreign students.   Then you have the life-long links that are forged.  That is one of our biggest elements of soft power.  One in seven world leaders at any given time have been educated at a British university.  It’s very powerful soft power, people who have been enriched by our values.  When it comes to business, again the rhetoric is about “Eastern Europeans coming and taking our jobs”.  Firstly, as long as somebody is paying the minimum wage and the company is operating legally, what is the problem?  Eastern Europeans are allowed to come and work here in the same way hundreds of thousands of our people are allowed to go and work in Europe.  It’s a reciprocal arrangement.  Surveys have also shown that Polish migrants are the most respected by Britons, followed by Indians.  A majority of Britons appreciate migrants.  That is the reality. 

On the Benefit System…

Of course there are some people – both EU and non-EU – who take advantage of our welfare state and our welfare state is generous and that is wrong.  So the reforms that the Prime Minister expects from the EU are absolutely right.  But those who exploit the system constitute a tiny minority.  The vast majority of the immigrants who come to this country are hard working contributors.  They do not draw on the NHS because they tend to be younger and healthier, they do not draw on welfare and they are actually net contributors to this economy.  There’s no question that the benefits system needs reform.  Britain has less than one percent of the world’s population and yet we have four percent of the world’s economy.  We also have seven percent of the world’s welfare spending.  The European Union has seven percent of the world population, 25 percent of the world’s economy and more than half the world’s welfare spending.  This is unsustainable, from Britain’s point of view and from the European Union’s point of view.  We have a welfare state that has to be restructured.  To that extent I subscribe to Iain Duncan Smith’s plans to create a system that is fair and helps those who need the help but on the other hand does not provide a benefits trap where it’s often better financially to not work than it is.  That cannot be right.

Immigration…why it’s important…

This country requires a lot of immigration at every level.  From an economic point of view, if you look at the city of London, many people don’t realize that we are the number two inward investment destination in the world.  45% of that is financial services because we have the City of London which is the number 1 financial centre in the world.  If you look at who is working in the city of London some of the biggest names in the City are international.  They come from all over the world.  That international talent, the best of the best in the world is what makes the City the top financial centre on the planet.  If you take manufacturing, Jaguar Land Rover – owned by India’s TATA – has been a huge success story.  Tata bought it in 2008 when nobody wanted to touch the company and today their profits are greater than the price they paid for it.  These are the companies that power Britain.  And then you hear about companies that have trouble getting visas for their foreign workers.  That’s wrong.  We need to attract the best and the brightest from around the world.

I support a programme by UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) called ‘SIRIUS’ which allows outstanding young graduates from around the world to come to the UK and set up their businesses here.  What a brilliant idea?  The respect that that creates for Britain as an investment destination is stupendous. 

On what awaits foreign nurses…

I have spoken to heads of hospitals about this and they are flabbergasted.  They keep asking, ‘how can the government do this?  Without foreign nurses the NHS would collapse.’  And how inhuman is it that you ask a man or woman who works in a very noble, service-oriented, selfless profession which doesn’t pay much in the first place, to up and leave because they don’t meet a random salary requirement set by the Home Secretary?  It’s inhuman.  Those same heads of hospitals say that they have had to train these people and when they are booted out they will have to spend millions more to train new nurses as their replacements.  Where is the sense in that? 
I have said this before and I will reiterate it, Theresa May is economically illiterate when it comes to immigration. 

On how Cobra is helping…

We supply more than 98 percent of the curry restaurants in this country.  More than two thirds of them are run by Bangladeshis.  If you talk to the Bangladeshi Caterers Association or the industry as a whole, they are concerned that they are unable to bring in the skilled chefs they need from India and elsewhere in the sub-continent because immigration rules are so prohibitive.  The situation is mind-boggling.  I go around the country giving talks and British people talk about how much they love curry.  This is our national dish because true entrepreneurs have gone to High Streets across Britain, knowing no one, opening up businesses, developing business, gaining customers and taking the curry to everyone around this country.  Then you have a government which says, ‘Thank you very much, we love the curry but if you need skilled chefs to carry on your good work, you’re not allowed to get them’.  That’s just wrong.  This is why we’ve teamed up with some of the best chefs in this country, people like Atul Kochar, Alfred Prasad, Vivek Singh, Cyrus Todiwala, and Vineet Bhatia who are helping us now to provide lessons from their learning which they are sharing with restaurateurs around the country with workshops which Cobra Beer is funding.  Free of charge for restaurants so that these award-winning Michelin-starred chefs can share their best practice with any restaurant in the country.  It’s been popular with restaurateurs and we have a queue of restaurants lined up to attend these workshops.  So in our own small way we are helping the industry because we know they cannot get the skilled workers that they need from overseas from South Asia.

So the best thing could be if this government could get sensible about immigration.

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