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Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012

Fix U.K.'s irrational visa policy

LONDON — Japanese politicians banging the nationalist drum and annoying the Chinese without good reason have shown once again their unthinking and short-sighted populism. Unfortunately they are not unique. British politicians can be just as short-sighted and populist.

The British electorate have for some years been particularly exercised by the number of foreign nationals coming to Britain to work and according to some observers taking British jobs, which the unemployed could in theory do, but sometimes don't want to do.

There is nothing that the British government can do to stop nationals from other European Union countries coming to Britain to work as freedom of movement within the EU is a basic right under the treaties. This means that the main targets of government policies designed to reduce net immigration are nationals from non-EU countries. Almost inevitably this means that a racial element creeps into British popular prejudices. People of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin are associated in the popular mind with anti-Western attitudes and especially if they cannot speak adequate English or abide by British norms they are liable to face social discrimination.

Immigration is a real problem for Britain, but the measures adopted by the present government are in many respects damaging to Britain's long-term national interests. Ministers are fixated on reducing the number of immigrants and seem incapable of adopting more flexible policies, which they allege would involve discrimination. They wrongly use this as an excuse for their obduracy and refusal to consider changes.

Although I deplore the damage done to relations with other countries by current policies (or perhaps I should say by the way in which they are implemented), my main concern is the serious effect that these policies can have on Anglo-Japanese relations and economic interests.

When I raised this issue recently at an Anglo-Japanese forum with the chairman, who is a former leader of the Conservative Party and former home secretary, who was responsible for immigration and border controls, he brushed my concerns aside and said that the Japanese side had not complained. This is incorrect, but perhaps Japanese politeness has so far prevented Japanese from making their complaints sufficiently forcefully.

The U.K. Border Agency, which was rapped over the knuckles by the home secretary earlier in the year for not checking fully the passports of incoming visitors, now carries out checks on all passports. This has meant that visitors ( and returning U.K. residents) often have to queue for long periods, if their aircraft arrive at a busy time, before being seen by a passport officer.

Border Agency staff, whose numbers were cut by the government's austerity measures, could and should be given more discretion and told to use their common sense in being more flexible, but Home Secretary Teresa May aspires to be another "Iron Lady" and seems to regard flexibility as the characteristic of the "wets" so disliked by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. No wonder some of our visitors prefer to go to continental Europe, where passport checks are less absurdly inflexible.

But the damage to British interests goes much wider. Senior Japanese businessmen coming to Britain to take up managerial posts in Japanese firms here are kept waiting for visas, which for the Far East are now processed in Manila. This often means that they have to part with their passports for possibly two or more weeks.

British visa application forms have to be completed in English and filling in the forms is time consuming and not always easy. Japanese wanting to take up positions in Britain have to demonstrate an adequate knowledge of the English language. It is absurd to ask a senior Japanese journalist coming to head his paper's bureau in London to take an English test.

It is equally absurd to refuse visas to sushi chefs coming to London as trained chefs in the growing number of Japanese restaurants here, as a result of the popularity of Japanese cuisine, because they can't speak English. I wonder how many British businessmen taking up appointments in Tokyo could pass even the simplest test in Japanese!

Japanese students also face delays and difficulties. It is hardly surprising that some prefer to go to countries where the entrance hurdles are lower. The British government seem unable or unwilling to recognize that the vast majority of Japanese students coming to Britain to study and do research are bona fide and are unlikely to overstay their visas. An article by professor Edward Acton, the vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia, which has just established a Japanese language degree course, recently wrote an article for the university's alumni journal under the headline "Student visa issue could ruin our nation's standing."

British universities are pressing the government to exclude students from the migration statistics, but the home secretary will not listen. Instead ministers boast of the huge decrease in the number of international applications for student visas. This, as Acton says, "should send shivers, not cheers around Whitehall."

Some of Britain's best friends in Japan are men and women who have studied at British universities. That the United States is taking a similarly restrictive attitude toward student applicants does not justify the British attitude. There have no doubt been a few bogus students at bogus language schools, but it should be possible to weed these out without "using a sledge hammer to crack a nut."

The British government rightly attaches a great deal of importance to developing trade with Japan and to encouraging Japanese investment in both manufacturing and services in Britain. These have continued to develop in recent years and are a significant element in the British economy. Officials in Whitehall are conscious of the damage that inflexible government immigration policies are doing to British and Japanese interests, but they need help in getting the issues recognized by ministers and ensuring that the problems created are dealt with flexibly and pragmatically.

Keidanren should speak to the Confederation of British Industries and senior Japanese should be urged on all suitable occasions to press with their British interlocutors the importance of defusing this issue quickly.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain's ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

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