Home Secretary’s speech at the inaugural East West Forum

Speech given by the Home Secretary at the first East West Forum event – Generating Growth, Promoting Dialogue: What East and West can learn from one another.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

Thank you. It is a pleasure to be at the launch of this exciting new series of events promoting greater ties between East and West.

Alok, I know you have been the driving force into putting this idea into fruition and I want to congratulate you on doing such an excellent job. It is terrific to see so many business leaders from Germany, India, China and the UK in this room, and it is particularly good to see and particularly good to see that the High Commissioner is here today.

This week Britain is hosting the sixth UK-China Economic Financial Dialogue. My colleague the Chancellor has been welcoming Vice Premier Ma Kai and his team. I mention this because such events demonstrate the great importance the government places on our relationship with China, as well as our continued commitment to strengthening the ties between our two countries. I am delighted that we are seeing ever greater numbers of Chinese visitors and students coming to the UK, alongside record levels of investment and trade.

India and Germany are also long-standing and highly valued friends and I welcome this opportunity to develop our relationships with business leaders in those countries. I want to see ever more Indian and German visitors discovering for themselves what this country has to offer.

The theme of this inaugural event is: “Generating Growth, Promoting Dialogue: What East and West can learn from one another.” And today I want to talk about the role of immigration.

Normally, when I talk about immigration it is about the importance of ensuring it is properly controlled. That’s because when immigration isn’t properly controlled it makes it difficult to maintain social cohesion, puts pressure on our public services and infrastructure, and forces down wages for people on low incomes.

Government reforms have cut net migration by a quarter since the peak under the last government – proving that where we are legally able to control immigration we can reduce numbers, with non-EU net migration close to its lowest level since the late 1990s.

But controlling immigration doesn’t just mean reducing the numbers, it also means attracting the brightest and best.

So today I want to talk about the role a well managed immigration system can play in promoting prosperity, providing educational opportunities, enabling the exchange of culture, knowledge and ideas, and encouraging greater friendship between our countries.

The benefits of a well managed immigration system are deeply rooted in British values, and reflect our openness as an economy and society, our liberalism and our tolerance.

And as I, and the government, appreciate, if this country is to succeed and win the competition for global talent, then we must be able to attract that talent from whatever it is to be found.

So I want to say to everyone here today: Britain is open for business and we welcome you here.

An improved work and student visa offer

As I have just said, we want to attract the brightest and best. That is why we have made much needed changes for those who want to come here to work and study.

We have transformed the immigration routes for migrant workers by closing the Tier 1 General route in which a third of migrants were unemployed or in low skilled work, and reserved the Tier 2 route for skilled jobs only. As a result we have seen an increase in sponsored visa applications for highly skilled workers – up 16% in the last year.

We have reduced red tape and increased flexibility for businesses through a raft of measures, including allowing Tier 2 visas to be granted for up to 5 years rather than the previous 3 years.

We have introduced a new route for the exceptionally talented in science, humanities, engineering, digital technology and the arts. In April the latest body to join this route was Tech City UK which has 200 places available for top tech talent.

And we have made a range of provisions for graduates looking to work in the UK after their studies here, including a new Graduate Entrepreneur route – the first of its kind in the world, with nearly 100 universities signed up.

The principle we applied to work routes, we have also applied to those who want to come here to study.

So we have taken action to make sure that students who want to come to Britain really are students.

Those applying must now speak adequate English, be able to support themselves financially, and be sponsored by a genuine college or university.

In addition, we require institutions to adhere to our rules and to prove they are selling education not immigration – and as a result we have already removed around 750 bogus colleges from the list of those entitled to bring students into Britain.

But importantly, there is no limit on student numbers – and these changes mean a better deal for legitimate students, increasing protection from poor quality colleges and substandard education.

As a result students continue to flock here, and we remain the second most popular destination for international higher education students.

The latest figures show a 5% increase in the number of sponsored student visas applications for universities and a rise of 8% for Russell Group universities in the 12 months to June 2014. Over the same period, we have seen strong growth in the number of study visas granted to countries such as China – up 7%, Brazil – up 115%, and Malaysia – up 23%, while the number of student visitor visas issued has also increased by 8%.

UK Visas and Immigration: customer satisfaction

So our reforms are working. The UK is open for business and we remain an attractive destination for global talent. But in today’s international marketplace, it is also vitally important that we have a visas and immigration system that is modern and efficient and can compete well with other countries.

That is why we have transformed the immigration and border system, abolished the UK Border Agency, and established three new operational commands. One of which, UK Visas and Immigration, is the command responsible for making millions of decisions every year about who has the right to visit or stay in the UK.

It has a strong customer service ethos, and a range of enhanced services for valued applicants and businesses. And over the past two years, we have been listening carefully to the views of British businesses and travel companies so that we can continue to improve our visa offer particularly to Chinese and Indian visitors.

Excellent service for Chinese and Indian visitors

We have introduced a raft of changes to our Chinese visa service helping to ensure it is truly excellent.

We have upgraded our entire network of twelve Visa Application Centres in China to increase capacity.

We have made our processes less bureaucratic, ensure fast-turn around times and offer appointments out of working hours.

We have extended our 3-5 day priority service.

We have introduced a Passport Pass Back service so that customers can retain their passport while their UK visa application is being processed.

And we offer a VIP Mobile Visa Service for high-value travellers who would like the convenience of visa staff going directly to them to collect the biometric data necessary for a visa.

These initiatives are proving increasingly popular, and in June I announced a range of further measures.

Improvements to our online application process make it simpler, more user-friendly, with translated and intuitive questions, asking customers only questions necessary for their individual application.

The process also allows those applying online to automatically generate a partially completed Schengen form at the same time as completing their UK application.

Within the first two months thousands of customers have used this application form with just over a third pressing the “print partially completed Schengen form” option.

A new Super Priority 24 hour visa service is building on the popularity of the 3-5 day service.

We are expanding our on-demand Mobile Visa Service to the areas surrounding the 12 of the cities where we have application centres.

And this autumn we will be launching the British-Irish Visa Scheme which will allow Chinese and Indian nationals to visit the UK and Ireland on a single visa.

All these changes are delivering results. They provide greater flexibility and choice. And we know they have been welcomed by many travellers and tour operators in China.

In the year to June 2014 we issued almost 390,000 visas to Chinese nationals, up 22% on the year to June 2013.

Chinese nationals who apply for a British visa are very likely to get one – with 96% of Chinese visit visas approved.

And of all the UK’s visa operations worldwide, in 2013 we saw the biggest increase in visitor numbers from China.

Our visa offer in India is equally impressive. There we have the UK’s largest visa operation in the world and more visa application centres than any other competitor country.

We offer a range of enhanced services including a 3-5 day priority service to visitors who have previously travelled to the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or a Schengen country. We also offer a Passport Back Service, a Prime Time appointment service and premium service lounge facilities in selected cities, and a Business Network with dedicated UK visa staff to assist businesses with their visa requirements.

India was the first country where we introduced our Super Priority Visa Service which allows general and business visitors who have travelled to the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada or a Schengen country within the last five years. to get their visa processed in just 24 hours. It is also available to visa applicants sponsored by companies who are members of our Business Express Scheme.

And we offer frequent travellers to the UK multiple entry long term visit visas, valid for up to 10 years.

In the last year we processed over 400,000 visas in India and 90% of Indian customers who applied for a visa got one.

And in the year to June 2014 the average processing time for a visa was just over 6 days – with 97% of applications were processed within our 15 working day target.

But there is more we can do

But I know we must continue to make improvements if we are going to stay ahead in a competitive marketplace.

Importantly, we are working to make it much easier for Chinese people to visit the UK and Europe on the same trip.

We are taking steps to further align the process of applying for a UK visa with the Schengen visa process in China through the development of a “Single Visa Application Centre visit” concept. This would enable customers who visit a UK application centre to submit both UK and Schengen visa applications at the same time. Customers will then receive their decisions back by courier avoiding the need to return to the application centre.

This will require the support of the Chinese, the European Commission and the relevant Member State so it is a complicated process, but we are getting there.

We have designed a technical process to do this and are in advanced talks with the authorities in China to secure the necessary permissions, and European partners to encourage their participation in this innovative scheme.

I hope that in the near future we can move to a pilot project, given the positive nature of the discussions we have had so far with our Chinese and European partners.

Transit visas

But while that work is ongoing, today I am pleased I can announce significant changes to the UK’s transit regime.

Transit passengers can play an important part in ensuring routes are viable for airlines. In the coming months I will introduce a package of measures that will make it easier for more passengers to transit airside through the UK without a visa.

These changes will allow more people to use an exemption document, such as a valid US visa, to transit through the UK rather than having to obtain a UK transit visa.

I recognise that airlines place considerable importance on the current exemption documents that already exempt passengers flying on their extensive North American networks, from having to hold a UK transit visa. Therefore I am making changes to facilitate more airside transit. Holders of visas issued by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA will be able to use them to transit the UK to anywhere in the world, not just when they are en-route to or from those countries.

For example we estimate up to 6 million holders of Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and US visas from China alone could benefit from this change and use the UK to transit visa-free. Irish biometric visas will also be added to the list of exemption documents which can be used for transit, and I will also include on a trial basis the Schengen Approved Destination Status scheme visa thus allowing around 210,000 Chinese travellers a year travelling to the Schengen area on that visa to do so, via the UK, without an additional UK visa.

In July I lifted the transit visa on Colombian nationals, and as a result of this we have seen the creation of a direct flight between Heathrow and Bogota. I now plan to lift the airside transit visa requirement on nationals of Ecuador, Bolivia and Montenegro.

The airside transit visa fee will be reduced to £30, making us cheaper for transit than any of our EEA counterparts.

At the same time to make our transit regime more secure, I will also close an unacceptable loophole in our landside transit arrangements which currently allow some visa nationals to enter the UK purely on the basis of an onward ticket, without any advance checks either by us or one of our trusted partners. Instead all visa nationals transiting landside will require “a visitor in transit visa” or an exemption document to enter if the UK.

These measures reflect a step change in our transit arrangements – they offer a more flexible approach for transit passengers, greater certainty about when a transit visa is needed, and cheaper visas all helping to ensure that our world class airports and airlines continue to be competitive and attract more international travellers and business visitors.

But, most importantly, they draw the right balance between security and growth.


Britain is open for business. We welcome legitimate students, tourists, business travellers and people who want to come to this country to contribute.

The changes we have put in place are ensuring that Britain remains an attractive destination, a place where people want to come to work hard, study and enjoy our tourist attractions.

Today we have made further changes to a transit regime, and I hope we can continue to make improvements to ensure a system which is as efficient as possible.

As I said earlier, Britain is open to the brightest and best. And I want to see Chinese, Indian, German and many other visitors from around the world coming here to and enjoying all the great things this country has to offer.

Published 12 September 2014