When President Xi Jinping of China visited us here at the Guildhall in October, he didn't have to worry about whether or not he would be granted a visa. For too many of his countrymen, this is an issue which is keeping both them and their businesses out of the UK. As we welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week, we should look at how our attitudes to immigration are affecting our business opportunities.
The public thinks that immigration is too high, and the government has stated that its goal is to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands. However, as long as there is free movement of labour within the EU, this will be an impossible task, barring a major recession.
Britain needs a more informed debate on the topic, and business and politicians should try to ensure this happens. The public believes that there is too much immigration in part because they believe that over 30 per cent of the population is foreign; in reality, that figure is 13 per cent. Three quarters of people view immigration as a problem for the country, but only 25 per cent view it as a problem for their area.
As The Economist neatly commented, "the British public don't like immigration, but they quite like immigrants".
It is argued that large-scale immigration threatens the viability of public services, puts a strain on infrastructure, and damages social cohesion. While there is some truth in this, many public services, particularly the health service, depend heavily on immigrants.
In the capital, the Migration Observatory observed that "residents of London, where migrants are most heavily concentrated by far, are less likely than residents of other areas to favour sharp reductions in migration to the UK. This finding holds even for white UK-born Londoners." London is the great city that it is today partly because of immigration – not in spite of it.
So what practical action can be taken to improve current practices to enable business to thrive – while still maintaining a level of immigration acceptable to the public? First, visitors "doing Europe" (especially those from China) need only one visa for the rest of Europe but a separate one for Britain. This must be changed. Second, students, who are now required to leave after completing their studies, should be allowed to stay, as this is the very time in life when they can contribute most to the economy and benefit Britain as a whole. Third, rapidly-growing small businesses, a vital part of the economy for which the system often just does not work, need to be able to bring in global talent – as this will lead to jobs for British workers too. Fourth, we should provide greater flexibility for short-term visitors by removing the "cooling off" period for those coming to discuss a project or deal or to undertake a short-term assignment.
Business understands the political climate on immigration, but it must seek to play its part in changing that climate so that it accords with reality. That is the only way to secure the changes we all need.