London: The UK is planning to relax immigration rules by offering cheaper and easier visas for Indian tourists, students and professionals, in an attempt to clinch a trade deal with India, a media report said on Saturday.
UK International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan is expected to travel to New Delhi this month, when formal negotiations on a proposed India-UK free trade agreement (FTA) are expected to begin.
Trevelyan is expected to use this visit to open the prospect of relaxing immigration rules for Indian citizens, a key demand from New Delhi, The Times newspaper reported.
While she has the backing of Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who has put securing closer ties with India on top of the government's agenda to counter the growing influence of China, Home Secretary Priti Patel is opposed to this move, the report said.
In May last year, Patel had signed a ‘bespoke' and reciprocal Migration and Mobility Partnership (MMP) with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to have around 3,000 students and professionals a year access work experience benefits in either country.
Under the MMP, both sides have agreed to work towards an April 2022 timeline to bring the new system in place, with work underway in the High Commission in London and the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.
However, under further immigration plans reportedly in the works, one option being looked at is a scheme similar to that agreed as part of the UK's FTA with Australia, which would allow young Indians the chance to come and work in the UK for up to three years.
Another option would be to cut visa fees for students, thereby allowing them to stay in the UK for a period after they graduate, possibly building upon the Graduate Route visa under the points-based immigration rules currently in place, the report said.
There could also be reductions in the fees for work and tourism visas.
At present, it can cost an Indian citizen up to GBP 1,400 for a work visa, while students pay GBP 348 and tourists GBP 95 respectively.
These are in sharp contrast with visa fees for countries such as China, who have to pay significantly less.
Indian-origin peer Lord Karan Bilimoria, the president of the Confederation of British Industry, has been among the most vocal advocates for lowering visa fees for Indians.
“That FTA, I hope, will benefit in enhancing bilateral trade and be as comprehensive as possible. Movement of people; reduction of duties and tariffs – the tariff on Scotch whisky is 150 per cent, that's got to be reduced drastically; academic collaborations and cross-border research is going to be huge between our countries and partnering on a Green industrial revolution. There is a vast array to really ramp up business and trade between our two countries,” he had said.
A senior government source told 'The Times' that there was an acceptance by ministers that the price of a trade deal with India would be to make a “generous” offer on visas.
“The tech and digital space in India are still hugely protectionist and if we could open up even a slither of access, it would put us ahead in the game,” a government official was quoted as saying.
The UK government has repeatedly said it wants a deal that slashes barriers for doing business with India.
According to the Department for International Trade, preparations for the launch of negotiations for the UK-India FTA ‘remains underway' since the conclusion of bilateral working groups.
Trevelyan and her Indian counterpart, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, had also held talks during the G-20 trade ministers meeting in Sorrento, Italy, last October to discuss “final preparations” for the launch of India-UK FTA negotiations this year.
“We look forward to launching negotiations early this year. India is projected to become the world's third largest economy by 2050, and a trade deal will open huge opportunities for UK businesses to trade with India's GBP 2 trillion economy,” a UK government spokesperson said.