Britain needs action on visa restrictions to stay open to international business

Mark Boleat
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THE defining characteristic of London’s success in recent times is its international outlook. New census data vividly demonstrates this fact, by showing that more than 100 different languages are now spoken in virtually every London borough.

Skilled individuals from across the globe choose to call the capital home. This pool of talent is, in turn, a key attraction for multinational institutions, particularly in the City. Leading financial and professional services firms locate here because they can hire the best – regardless of nationality.

This makes reports suggesting that Britain is losing out on potentially significant revenue from Chinese visitors, due to a restrictive visa regime, a serious concern.

This is an issue that affects not only tourists but also business visitors from China and elsewhere. The recent announcement from Downing Street – that it plans to reduce bureaucracy and make it easier for Chinese individuals to come to the UK legitimately – is welcome. But more needs to be done.

In order to prove the UK is open for business, we need a visa regime that is fit for purpose. Of course, adapting the current system to meet the realities of a fast-changing global economic landscape presents a major challenge. But it is one we must meet urgently.

Despite Europe continuing to dominate the headlines, it will be centres in Asia and Latin America that drive growth in financial and professional services over the coming years. This makes it imperative for the government to take a serious look at obstacles to trade – including visa policy – with these regions and then to implement reforms.

Just last week, we hosted a major conference at Guildhall focusing on financing India’s infrastructure. As part of its current five year plan, India projects a need for investment of $1 trillion (£631bn) in infrastructure – with 50 per cent coming from the private sector. This presents considerable opportunities for City firms across the supply and financing chain, providing that the government of India can offer the right conditions for international investors to participate

Meanwhile, new figures published by the City of London Corporation show that the London renminbi market grew significantly in the first six months of 2012, with transaction volumes in foreign exchange up 150 per cent overall, and trade services growing strongly. Confidence in London as an international centre for services and products denominated in the Chinese currency has been further boosted by the Bank of England indicating it is, in principle, ready to agree a swap line with the People’s Bank of China.

This international outlook is what makes London stand out against its peers. When it comes to foreign exchange, for example, twice as many US dollars are traded in the UK than in the US, and twice as many euros as in the Eurozone. In order to retain this advantage, however, we need to match the open for business rhetoric with action on visas.

Mark Boleat is policy chairman at the City of London Corporation.