May offers India more UK visas in return for deal on overstayers
Theresa May has offered a deal with India which could see more visas for the country's nationals to come to the UK in return for increased co-operation in taking back migrants who overstay their permission to remain.
But the Prime Minister gave no ground on Indian concerns over the eligibility criteria for British visas, with aides stressing that any reforms would relate to the speed, convenience and cost of the application process only.
Indian PM Narendra Modi has heaped pressure on Mrs May on the issue during her first visit to the country as Prime Minister, publicly voicing unease over restrictions on access to the UK for students and skilled workers.
And British entrepreneur Sir James Dyson also told a business summit in New Delhi he wanted to see liberalisation of visa rules.
Indian concerns revolve around new minimum salary requirements on workers hoping to relocate to the UK, as well as Mrs May's removal as home secretary of a right for students to work for two years in Britain after graduation.
The issue has overshadowed a three-day trip devoted to paving the way for a free trade deal following the UK's withdrawal from the EU, as well as the removal of existing barriers to commerce.
Mrs May - who arrived at the head of a 33-strong trade delegation - said deals worth £1 billion had been sealed during the visit, creating more than 1,300 jobs in the UK.
Memorandums of understanding were signed on intellectual property rights and the ease of doing business in India, and the two premiers agreed to co-operate on cyber-security and tackling violent extremists online.
As part of a new "strategic dialogue" on home affairs issues, Mrs May said the UK "will consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK".
"And the UK will continue to welcome the brightest and best Indian students, with the latest figures showing that nine out of 10 applications are granted."
Aides stressed that the improvements to the visa system on offer did not include any relaxation of eligibility criteria. And no estimates are being made of the number of extra visitors that might result.
Instead, the UK is ready to consider changes such as cutting the cost of visas, speeding up the process or increasing the number of locations where applications can be submitted - something which could increase the number of visas requested and approved.
In return, it was hoped that India will agree to accept back overstayers on the basis of biometric information - such as fingerprints - gathered by UK migration authorities, rather than insisting on documentation which may have been destroyed or lost.
Indian nationals are among the most frequent visa overstayers in the UK, and it is thought that thousands may be covered by a deal of the kind being considered.
Speaking alongside Mrs May at a tech sector summit ahead of their working lunch, Mr Modi made clear his concern about visa changes which have almost halved numbers of Indian students at UK universities over the past five years.
"Education is vital for our students and will define our engagement in a shared future," he said.
"We must therefore encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities."
Following the lunch, he signalled he was also concerned about restrictions on visas for skilled workers.
Welcoming the establishment of a UK-India joint working group on trade, he said: "We believe that such a group should not only focus on trade in goods but also the expansion of services trade, including greater mobility of skilled professionals."
Mrs May has already announced moves to speed the way for Indian executives through UK airports as well as helping a handful of top business figures with visa applications.
UK officials were delighted that Mr Modi granted Mrs May an unusually lengthy 90-minute one-on-one private discussion in talks which formed the centrepiece of her first bilateral visit as PM outside Europe.
Cobra beer founder Lord Bilimoria said Indians were getting a raw deal on visas, compared to China, which was given two-year multiple entry visa for less than £100 following President Xi Jinping's state visit last year.
The crossbench peer told BBC2's Daily Politics: "Prime Minister Modi came within a month after that - no such concession for India.
"And now here we are - this was an ideal opportunity for the Prime Minister to say: 'Here in India, you can have exactly the same as we're offering China.' Because we know that many Indian visitors we lose out from in the UK, and the UK economy loses out on, because they go as far as Paris and do not come to the UK."
Lord Bilimoria was backed by Conservative peer and leading Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg, who told the programme: "I'm entirely with Lord Bilimoria that we should give at least as good terms to India as we give to China. It's quite wrong that we should give preferential terms to China rather than one of our closest allies."
Sir James told the BBC: "We should let more people from India in on visas and people who study here should be allowed to stay here and they should be told they can stay before they come.
"The Government needs to change its mind on this one because we are going to be one million engineers short in the coming years. We only have a quarter of the engineers we actually need."