February 18, 2013 12:06 am

Cameron warned on mixed migration message

David Cameron has been warned against giving two different messages on immigration before a visit to India.

The prime minister will insist that there is “no limit” to the number of Indian students who can study in Britain.

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John Cridland, head of the CBI employers’ organisation, said there was “a real risk” of increased confusion over whether Britain’s borders were open to those coming to study if Mr Cameron and fellow ministers did not make it clear that Indian students were welcome and made a valuable contribution.

His comments came as Mr Cameron prepared to lead the biggest business delegation yet assembled on a prime ministerial visit, with more than 100 representatives from business, universities and the arts accompanying him.

Mr Cameron upped his rhetoric on immigration last week, telling voters before the Eastleigh by-election that the UK could not be seen as a “soft touch” and vowing to restrict access to healthcare, housing, benefits and legal aid for migrants.

But on a visit to India – beginning on Monday in Mumbai – Mr Cameron is expected to use much more moderate language as he tries to reassure business leaders and academics in his entourage that Britain is not closing its doors to foreign students and professionals.

Mr Cameron said he wanted to make it easier for Indian business people to obtain British visas and hinted that he may announce new help during his visit.

The prime minister told the Hindustan Times: “Of course, it’s right that we have proper and fair controls in place to tackle illegal immigration but we will continue to offer a warm welcome to all those who genuinely want to come to the UK to succeed and to make a positive contribution to our society.”

Mr Cridland, who is part of the business delegation, acknowledged Mr Cameron’s dilemma in trying to find language to satisfy his Indian hosts, British business leaders and voters in Eastleigh.

“I am absolutely sure that we won’t get very far into our conversations with Indian business colleagues without this issue of Indian students getting into UK universities coming up,” he said.

“I speak to Indian companies all the time, and they have a perception, a perception, that we have become less welcoming to Indian students.” Mr Cridland said ministers could, and should, avoid sending out conflicting messages.

“Public concern about immigration is focused particularly on people coming into the country who have no economic contribution to make,” he said. “Students come here for a fixed period of time ... they are only allowed to stay if they have a proper job to go to.”

I want the brightest and best Indian students to come and study in the UK. But we also want to ensure that the immigration system isn’t abused

- David Cameron, prime minister

Mr Cameron said: “I’m very clear that I want the brightest and best Indian students to come and study in the UK. But we also want to ensure that the immigration system isn’t abused.

“Now that we’ve done that, we need to get our message out loud and clear. There is no limit on the number of students who can come from India to study at British universities.”

Apart from questions about Britain’s visa policy, New Delhi is expected to press Mr Cameron about bribery allegations surrounding a £483m export contract for 12 helicopters from Anglo-Italian company AgustaWestland.

Mr Cameron’s visit will also see him promoting the merits of the Eurofighter Typhoon, partly built in the UK, over the rival French Rafale, the preferred bidder to supply the Indian air force with new fighter jets.

The prime minister, who will visit New Delhi on Tuesday, is also expected to urge his hosts to liberalise their financial services markets, particularly in the insurance sector, and to remove barriers impeding the expansion of British retailers including Tesco.

Mr Cameron will announce government support for a new pan-India network of British Business Centres by 2017, the first pilot in a scheme of 20 overseas business networks, backed by £8m of government funding.

The government has also produced a study for business that identifies eight sectors where UK strengths match India’s economic requirements: infrastructure; financial and professional services; innovation and research; industry (in particular advanced manufacturing); energy; health; education; and vocational skills.

“This week’s visit is vital but our commitment is about more than a week,” Mr Cameron said. “It is a week-in, week-out determination to help you secure more trade, more investment and more jobs – and with it, to make Britain and India one of the defining relationships of this century.”

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