James Moore: Willie Walsh is right, but it’s about immigration so don’t expect action soon


Venturing into the political arena on any issue is a big risk for businessmen, let alone choosing one of the most contentious of the day, which is what Willie Walsh has done on the subject of immigration and border security.

Mr Walsh loudly complained yesterday about the visa requirements imposed on Chinese tourists by Britain. Aboard the first British Airways flight to Chengdu, the chief executive of its parent IAG (which also owns Iberian) unfavourably compared the costs (and difficulties) faced by Chinese visitors to these isles with those seeking entry to Europe’s border-free Schengen agreement zone.

Britain also imposes transfer visas, and Walsh says he would have got flights to an important hub within the world’s most dynamic economy going earlier but for the visa problem.

A major reason for that problem is, of course, the sclerotic bureaucracy of the British state which has a long and inglorious history when it comes to holding back trade and economic growth.

But, although Mr Walsh didn’t spell it out, it’s at least as much a result of our highly charged immigration debate, which is what prevents any action being taken to remedy the situation and makes visitors from China and beyond feel less than welcome when arriving on these shores.

The vast majority of new immigrants to this country come from Europe, and despite what some people would have you believe, that would be the case even were we to abandon the European Union. The free movement of people within the continent comes as a consequence of our membership of the European Economic Area and, as such, applies to such non EU states as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, at least if they want to retain access to the single European market.

But there’s little enough that can be done about that, so to look tough on an issue that is largely out of its control, our Government instead choses to make life difficult for visitors from outside of the EEA.

If the rhetoric of our politicians doesn’t put visitors off (and there is some evidence that it does, harming growth and jobs in the process), that surely will.

There is a high economic cost attached to this, and it doesn’t just affect Mr Walsh (who also rightly bemoaned the continuing gridlock surrounding the proposed third runway at Heathrow). It is also, for example, making the people who operate the successful network of Japanese car plants in the UK feel twitchy, and will damage our chances of attracting foreign investment generally.

The net effect will, of course, be fewer British jobs for British workers, but that message is simply getting lost amid the clamour.

Examining Labour’s promises won’t help

There was considerable froth yesterday about whether the Office for Budgetary Responsibility should cast a dispassionate eye on Labour’s spending commitments and (so far) it doesn’t look like this will happen.

This actually suits both sides. The Chancellor doesn’t want the OBR to pour cold water on his claim that Labour will plunge Britain back into the red, so he won’t let it happen. His shadow is probably relieved because he can accuse his opposite number of running scared, even though he is probably just as nervous as his opposite number about what the OBR might say, were it to be called in.

In the meantime we have lots of gimmicky policies from all the big guns: tax breaks for marriage that won’t be worth all that much, free school meals for very young children even if their parents are millionaires, expanded childcare provision for working parents (with responsibility dumped on schools, as if they didn’t have enough to worry about).

When I suggested that the Institute for Fiscal Studies might like to pick up the baton instead of the OBR, I was told this wouldn’t be possible. A shame, but you can understand why.

The IFS guards its political neutrality jealously, and if it were asked to run the slide rule over Labour’s plans, it could get drawn into a fray it understandably wants no part of.

So we’ll just have to wait until the three main parties’ manifestos are released, when the IFS will run the slide rule over all of them. Of course, the IFS and the OBR can only work with the information they are given.

And in the absence of genuinely fully costed plans (where, for example, are the Government’s proposed £25bn of future spending cuts coming from?) the whole debate is a little pointless.

Tesco’s tablet designed to cure its own ills

Is the average British family going to spend Christmas Day cuddled up around the Hudl? Tesco is certainly hoping so, with yesterday’s launch of its oddly named attempt to crash the tablet computing market.

The Hudl has been billed as the grocer’s answer to the iPad, but it’s hard to see why.

The iPad is a masterpiece of design, as even Microsoft sort of admits with the ads it is running Stateside in a despairing attempt to persuade people to buy its “Surface” as an alternative  (those horrible panels on the screen explain why that’s not going to happen).

The approach of the Hudl, at least if the pictures are borne out by the reality, is more utilitarian. It comes in four not particularly attractive colours, but is priced at £119, which puts it in the same ballpark as Amazon’s Kindle Fire. It also has more storage space and Google’s whizzy Android operating system to further help its pitch.

But this isn’t really about technology or even burning a hole in Amazon’s UK sales.

It’s more likely about creating a noise and cutting a PR dash in the hope that the Hudl will get people put off by the slapdash service at some of its dowdy UK stores coming back in to try one.

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