Boris Johnson dismisses visa link with Indian free trade deal


LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday sought to dismiss the notion that visa norms are set to be relaxed for Indians in pursuit of a free trade agreement (FTA) with India.

During the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) session in the House of Commons, Johnson was asked by one of his Conservative Party MPs to comment on reports that emerged in the UK media over the weekend about easier visas for Indian professionals and students to make an FTA more attractive to India.

Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh asked Johnson if a relaxation of visa controls from India was in the works to secure a trade agreement.

“I don’t recognise the account he’s given at all. We don’t do free trade deals on that basis,” said Johnson.

“Net immigration since we took back control (Brexit) has gone down… our new Borders Bill currently in the House of Lords enables us properly to take back control of our borders and to tackle illegal immigration,” he said.

Free movement of people from within the European Union (EU) was a key issue during the 2016 Brexit referendum, with Johnson pledging to “take back control” to create a “fairer” visa regime for applicants from within and outside of the EU post-Brexit.

“Apparently the government is thinking of relaxing visa controls from India in order to get a free trade deal. Whilst a free trade deal is valuable in itself, we should not be held to ransom,” said Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh in the Commons.

“Would he agree with me that our new working class voters who voted Brexit did not vote to replace immigration from Europe with more immigration from the rest of the world. Will he convince us that he is determined to connect to our supporters and control immigration,” he questioned.

His question in the Commons follows reports that UK International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan is expected to travel to Delhi later this month to kick-start FTA talks and is expected to offer a visa scheme similar to that agreed as part of the UK’s FTA with Australia.

Such a scheme would allow young Indians the chance to come and work in the UK for up to three years.

Another option reportedly being considered would be to cut visa fees for students and allow them to stay in Britain for a period after they graduate, possibly building upon the Graduate Route visa under the points-based immigration rules currently in place.

“India is projected to become the world’s third largest economy by 2050 and a free trade agreement will open up huge opportunities for UK businesses to trade with India’s GBP 2.25 trillion economy,” said a Department for International Trade spokesperson, without confirming or denying the reports of a visa scheme linked with an FTA.

“Companies up and down the country can look forward to the benefits, from manufacturers in the West Midlands to tech experts in Belfast, and we look forward to launching negotiations early this year,” the spokesperson said.

The UK government’s stated priority for the FTA talks is a “broad and comprehensive” FTA, which achieves short and long-term benefits for British businesses.

DIT sources said that a range of measures will be under consideration to enable British business to achieve maximum benefits from any deal.

The UK’s target will be on reduced tariffs from up to 150 per cent on key exports such as cars and Scotch whisky to make UK goods more competitive in the Indian market.

Back in May 2021, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson clinched an Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP) during a virtual summit, with the goal to double bilateral trade to GBP 50 billion by 2030.

The FTA is seen as the next step in the bilateral engagement.