A leading businessman has launched a stinging, multi-fronted attack on Prime Minister Theresa May and the “economic illiteracy” behind her stance on immigration which has “misled” the British public.
In a blog for HuffPost UK, Lord Karan Bilimoria, the co-founder of Cobra Beer and a cross bench peer in the House of Lords, derided May for the “inaccuracies surrounding” the statistics on international students she has used to advance her immigration arguments.
This, he said, shows “just how far the public have been misled about the highly-charged issue of migration, a driving factor behind the Brexit vote”.
May has been criticised for focussing on international students - that bring in £25 billion to the UK economy annually - in government immigration targets, despite official figures showing that fewer than 5,000 a year stay on after their visa expires. The PM had warned that up to 100,000 remained in the UK after their studies ended each year, a position she has clung to despite numerous reports disproving it.
Lord Bilimoria said May’s figures were a “gross overstatement” based on data - from the International Passenger Survey (IPS) - that can “at best be called conjecture and, at worst, sheer nonsense”. He added that IPS data had long been the basis of “scaremongering about immigration”, including from May.
Lord Bilimoria then began heaping evidence against May’s use of the statistics citing how on July 27 the Office for Statistics Regulation released a report “undermining” the IPS figures, saying they should be treated as “experimental”, rather than official.
It was “absurd”, Lord Bilimoria wrote, that these “false” figures had been, for so many years, the basis for Government policy.
Furthermore, he wrote, in August a study was released by the Government which confirmed “barely” 4,600 international students stayed on in the UK illegitimately.
In October last year it was reported - based on exit check data - that 1,500 students had stayed in the country illegitimately after graduating, but this report was never made public. Lord Bilimoria said he had, “time and again” asked the government why it had not been released, but had not been answered.
Lord Bilimoria further lamented that despite the “little evidence” for May’s position being discredited, she “still refuses to do the right thing and change her policy”.
“This sort of misrepresentation has led to the public’s loss of faith in the Government’s controls on immigration, arguably one of the biggest issues in the campaign leading to Brexit.”
He argued that not only did universities support the removal of international students from net migration figures, but so to did members of May’s Cabinet.
“Just this one move would show the world that we are open to university students from around the world,” Lord Bilimoria wrote.
“Otherwise, the UK and its universities will continue to lose out to competitors overseas, including the USA, Australia and Canada, where international students are classified as temporary migrants, not as migrants.”
As another example of May punishing international students, Lord Bilimoria noted that, as Home Secretary, she had removed the two-year post-graduation work visa, “whilst our competitor countries make it much easier for international students to stay on and work for a while after they graduate”.
Beyond the financial benefit to Britain, Lord Bilimoria said international students enriched the experience of UK students and were one of our “strongest forms of soft power, with more world leaders from British Universities than from any other country in the world”.
He added: “Yet we send an unwelcoming message to prospective foreign students throughout the world. It is largely this rhetoric that has prompted a drop of over half in the number of Indian students studying in the UK since 2010.”
Lord Bilimoria wrote that one of the greatest qualities of a leader is to listen, adapt and take guidance from experts around you, and that on other matters May had. However, on immigration, he questioned why “does she continue to stand her ground?”
He further questioned why, if May wanted to curb immigration, she did not use EU Directive 2004/38/EC which would allow the UK to deport EU nationals after three months if they are unable to support themselves or find employment, something Belgium uses to repatriate thousands each year.
“Why does the UK not use this and why have we allowed the Brexiteers to give the false impression that there is unfettered free movement from the EU to the UK, when that is not the case?
“The Prime Minister is right that we do need to tackle immigration, but focusing on EU citizens and international students is an error,” Lord Bilimoria wrote.
He suggested that visible exit checks - removed in 1998 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair - be reintroduced at the UK’s borders so that the Government could get “accurate immigration data that we desperately need to take control of immigration”
“This is surely a necessity for security purposes, given the dangerous world in which we live; the Government’s first and greatest responsibility is the protection of its citizens.
“But it would also end the unjustified suspicion of immigrants, who have contributed so much to our economy and our businesses. We cannot let the deception continue.”