UK immigration stance is ‘damaging’, say Indian entrepreneurs

Leading businesspeople from the Indian Diaspora warn that the UK government’s stance on immigration is making the country less attractive for investment

Kesavan has lived in the UK for more than six years and owns a flat in London. He first arrived from India to complete a masters degree, before working in the NHS, where he is now a senior audiologist.

Yet he might soon be forced out of Britain by the Government’s increasingly strict immigration rules, which Home Secretary Theresa May hopes will help reduce the net migrant figure down to tens of thousands a year. Despite her efforts, net migration recently hit a record 330,000 and the issue dominated the EU referendum debate.

Kesavan’s story is one of many listed on the Stop35 website. This is a campaign dedicated to forcing ministers to ditch a policy introduced in April that means migrants who are graduates must earn at least £35,000 a year to settle in the UK after their initial five year work visa expires.

Although there are exemptions for a fairly short list of occupations, such as engineering geologists and experienced cyber-security specialists, this high threshold comes on top of a series of other policies and barbed rhetoric to curb immigration. May caused anger in late 2014 when she proposed that non-EU students who have graduated in the UK be forced to leave and apply for work visas from their home countries.

[Theresa May] has no clue how damaging, how blinkered her approach is

The starting salaries for work visas are also high, with the curry chef shortage, which is estimated to be causing the closure of two Indian restaurants a week, blamed on the need to pay skilled cooks from Asia a minimum of £29,750. This is several thousand more than they could reasonably expect and the restaurateurs can typically afford.

The tough immigration stance is particularly hurtful to entrepreneurs from sub-continental Asia, given that UK Trade & Investment revealed only last year that India is the UK’s third biggest source of foreign direct investment. Indeed, India has invested heavily in the UK for more than a century now.

Drinking a coffee – rather than a bottle of Cobra beer, made by the company he founded in a flat in Southwest London in 1989 – Lord Karan Bilimoria outlines his complaints to Raconteur from the grander confines of his House of Lords offices in Millbank.

The 54-year-old, who was born in Hyderabad in southern India before moving to the UK in the early 1980s, is also chancellor of the University of Birmingham. He says: “May wanted [non-EU] foreign students to leave the day they graduated and [chancellor] George Osborne had to step in an say, ‘No, that’s not what we’re going to do’. The headlines in India were that we wanted to take their degree money and then get them out.

“She has no clue how damaging, how blinkered her approach is.”

Bilimoria points to changes in Australia, a country that has, in recent years, been tougher on immigration than the UK. Yet the Australian government now has a dedicated minister for international students and, argues Bilimoria, has “stolen a march on us”.

He adds: “The Australians say that if somebody is willing to pay for their degree and give us that income, that export revenue, and then  want to stay on and contribute to the economy, they’re welcome. And they’ve spent time getting to know the country, enriched the universities, so should stay if they want to. We’re exactly the opposite.”

Sarosh Zaiwalla was the first non-white lawyer to start a legal practice in the City and, like his father Ratanshaw, moved from India to the UK to train. Since 1982, Zaiwalla & Co Solicitors has represented the likes of the property magnate Tchenguiz brothers, Vincent and Robert, and once even hired an ambitious young barrister by the name of Tony Blair.

He says: “Immigration has become tougher, there’s much more compliance – it makes things more difficult. When an Indian entrepreneur comes here to establish his or her business and is already successful then they’re going to want to bring one or two of confidants with them.

“Look at London: it’s successful because it’s built on immigration. Suppose an Indian comes over with £50m to start an industry and they can’t bring their team with them, then they’ll go somewhere else with that money.”

Mihir Kapadia, chief executive at Sun Global Investments, points out that his firm might be London-based, but it is global in outlook and “always requires talent from the international market, including India, Latin America, and the Far East”.

He adds: “Immigration in financial services, particularly at the higher end, is a necessity. Labour and capital are always mobile and I’ve seen talent go back to their own countries, like China, India and [South] Korea.”