As trade officials from India and the United Kingdom race to seal Free Trade Agreement talks (FTA) in the next couple of weeks, U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss’s new Home Secretary threw a dampener on the process on Thursday by suggesting that she would not back the deal if it involves increased immigration to the U.K.
The comments by British Home Secretary (Minister) Suella Braverman came just two days after the new U.K. Secretary for International Trade Kemi Badernoch also lowered expectations on the FTA, that is due to be announced by Deepavali (October 24), according to a deadline set by the previous U.K. government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
According to sources, officials are also working on a visit to London by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of October, contingent on the FTA negotiations being finalised to a satisfactory extent.
The FTA agreement is being touted as proof of the Modi government’s ability to negotiate global trade deals, as well as a possible shot in the arm for Ms. Truss, in the midst of an economic crisis, especially as it was Ms. Truss as International Trade Secretary who conducted the opening rounds of trade talks in 2021.
Speaking to the British magazine Spectator, Ms. Braverman, who is herself the child of Indian origin migrants, said she had “concerns” and “reservations” about the deal.
“I have concerns about having an open borders migration policy with India because I don’t think that’s what people voted for with Brexit,” Ms. Braverman, speaking about the talks, and India’s push for visa flexibility and including services in the agreement, during the interview.
“I do have some reservations. Look at migration in this country — the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants. We even reached an agreement with the Indian government last year to encourage and facilitate better co-operation in this regard. It has not necessarily worked very well,” Ms. Braverman added, referring to the agreement on “Illegal Returns” that was promoted by the former Home Secretary Priti Patel. The issue of immigrants overstaying in the U.K. has been a point of contention for some years, and the cause of a major controversy when former U.K. PM Theresa May visited India in 2016 and said that any increase in visas to Indians would have to co-relate to the “speed and volume of the return of Indians with no right to remain in the U.K.”.
The Commerce Ministry declined to comment on the statements, which government sources called “internal” affairs of the U.K. On September 27, Commerce and Industries Minister Piyush Goyal held a virtual meeting with Ms. Badenoch. Mr. Goyal also met her deputy, Minister of State James Duddrige, on the sidelines of the G-20 trade meeting in Bali the week before, where he said that the two sides “have set their sights on a time-bound conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement negotiations”.
Speaking at the Conservative Party Annual conference this week, Ms. Braverman also made negative remarks about “new migrants”, whom she blamed for the communal riots between people of Indian and Pakistani descent in Leicester last month, and said that life in the city had been disrupted “because of failures to integrate large numbers of newcomers”.
At the same conference, Ms. Badenoch addressed concerns about the FTA with India opening up the U.K.’s services sector for more Indian immigration.
“I am not in a rush to sign trade deals. I want good deals with these countries. We need to make sure that every deal is great for the U.K.,” she said. However, she indicated that Ms. Truss was committed to the Deepavali deadline, and hinted that the FTA could be amended and expanded later as well.