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Visa bonds a blow to ‘special relationship’ with India

Cameron should think carefully before he progresses with this scheme, which has been greeted with anger and disbelief by the very people the PM has tried to woo
  • @AndrewBuncombe

There’s been an angry backlash to plans announced by the British government to introduce £3,000 bonds for visitors from six countries which are deemed to be “high-risk”.

And rightly so. The plan is offensive, counter-productive and unlikely to achieve its aim. The Government says it is still working out the details of a pilot scheme to be introduced but they should simply bury the idea and move on.

In the summer of 2010, on what was his first major foreign trip, David Cameron came to India with a six-strong team of ministers looking to boost bilateral trade and hoping for Indian investment in the UK. Britain and India, he has repeatedly said, are a natural fit to work together.

Cameron returned in February with a delegation of more than 100 British business representatives and educationalists, again calling for a special partnership and insisting to his rather unimpressed hosts that the “future of our two countries should be inextricably linked”.

It remains unclear how much business was actually done on the trip, but it did result in a commitment from the UK to providing same day business visas for Indians (which had been long demanded) and a promise that access for students would continue and even increase.

All of which made last week’s announcement by the government that India was to be included along with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana and Sri Lanka as countries whose citizens could be asked to pay a £3,000 cash bond, all the more remarkable and clumsy.

All week, Indian friends and acquaintances have been asking me: “What sort of message is he trying to send?” Or, in the (paraphrased) words of one forthright Indian television news anchor, it seems that Britain wants India’s money “but it doesn’t want the Indians”. India’s commerce minister Anand Sharma lodged a complaint when he met Vince Cable in London.

Firstly, what the scheme is not: it is not a plan to make everyone from these six countries pay a bond. Rather, I am told by a British official, the only "high risk" citizens from these six countries will be asked to pay.

The official said that in 2012, 88 per cent of the total 370,000 Indians who applied for a UK visa received one. (Of this total figure, the number for business visas was even higher, closer to 97 per cent, while student visas were a little lower, around 80 per cent.) The official said they did not expect this to change.

But as with so much else, the small print of the details can get lost if the larger “optics” are wrong. Indians I spoke to said they felt insulted by the message the UK appeared to be giving. They especially did not like being placed in the same category as Pakistanis, their historic foe, and Nigerians, towards whom a number of Indians perhaps hold racist attitudes.

(Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana and Sri Lanka have also condemned the scheme.)

Yet perhaps the point that was made most often was that nobody believes the bond scheme will work. Rather, “high-risk” individuals will simply factor in the additional £3,000 and see the bond as an open invitation from Theresa May, the home secretary. “Do you think that’s going to put them off?” said one friend. “That’s like giving people a green light.”

The coalition government’s Liberal partners have insisted that the proposed pilot scheme is just that, and that nothing has been fixed in stone. It is also very hard to determine to what extent the government is acting to deal with a genuine problem and to what extent the announcement is been driven by domestic politics and the threat it feels from parties such as UKIP.

I say, do away the bond, but if the government is adamant about having it, here’s one possible solution to defusing the row – scrap the six high-risk country category and extend the scheme to all nations. That is, if a visitor to the UK is deemed to be high risk, than ask for a bond, regardless of whether they are from Canada, the US, Russia or indeed India or Nigeria. That way, everyone is treated the same and no-one is put in a special category

Whether it will deal with over-stay is unclear. But perhaps it would at least stop insulting hundreds of millions of people with whom you claim to be trying build a special relationship.