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Archives for August 2010

Foreign students boost immigration figures

Mark Easton | 11:55 UK time, Thursday, 26 August 2010

Comments (116)

Today's quarterly immigration figures [285.83KB PDF] reveal a surprising increase in net migration into Britain driven, not by foreign workers, but by a big rise in the number of students coming to the UK.

While the number of work-related visas issued in the year to June 2010 fell 14% to 161,000, student visas have risen a whopping 35% to more than 360,000.

The figures present a stark reminder of just how difficult it is for government ministers to squeeze immigration without risking damaging the economy.

Foreign students are worth an estimated £8bn to the UK and the fees they pay for their courses underpin the finances of the higher education sector.

Tuition fees paid by overseas students can be up to seven times the price paid by their British counterparts.

Some universities have expressed anxiety that the greater cost and complexity of getting a student visa these days has put off many young people who had considered buying courses in Britain, although today's data suggest the tougher arrangements have not had a detrimental effect.

In fact, it appears that the UK's academic institutions are holding their own in an expanding and immensely lucrative international market.

There will be concerns that the big rise in foreign students coming to Britain is driven by young people whose interest is economic rather than academic. There is some evidence that this does happen but the controls have been repeatedly tightened.

Since February anyone wishing to study in Britain must first obtain a formal invitation from one of nearly 2,000 colleges on a register run by the Home Office.

Those taking a course below degree level must go through an institution on what is called the Highly Trusted Sponsors List, they must have English to a level just below GCSE, they cannot work and they cannot bring dependants into the country. The visa costs £199.

The net immigration figure in the year to December 2009 has risen to 196,000, compared with the final estimate of 163,000 in the year to December 2008. This graph shows how a fall in the number of people leaving Britain and a relatively stable immigration picture has resulted in the rise.

Graph showing total long-term international migration, UK, 2000-2009

What the graph does not show is that the fall in emigration is driven largely by a reduction in the number of Brits leaving the country - the "number of non-British citizens emigrating long term from the UK was 211,000, not statistically significantly different from the estimate of 243,000 in the year to December 2008".

To understand how the different categories of people coming into Britain have changed over the past decade, this graph provides a neat picture.

Graph showing UK entry clearance visas, 2005-2010

The squeeze on temporary employment visas and skilled workers from outside the EU (tier two) is clear, as is the huge increase in the numbers of student visas issued.

It is worth pointing out, of course, that student visas are temporary. Once the individual has completed their course they are normally required to leave the country without delay. Some may stay on, hiding from the authorities as an illegal immigrant, but the vast majority will return home unless they have a job and a new work visa to go with it.

So if the coalition sticks to its guns on reducing the net immigration figure to below 100,000, today's figures show that the job just got a bit harder.

Why rising sex infection figures may be good news

Mark Easton | 17:34 UK time, Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Comments (30)

Reading much of the press coverage of today's figures on sexually transmitted infections and the message is clear: the irresponsibility of our hedonistic teenagers is to blame for record levels of STIs. Some of the papers even have a photo of obviously promiscuous youngsters leering at the camera in case we don't get it.

But what the articles fail to stress is that the rise in diagnoses can be almost entirely explained by a massive increase in young people coming forward to be tested for chlamydia. And the proportion testing positive is actually going down.

Graph showing testing volumes and proportion of positive index cases by sex in England: April 2003 - March 2010

It is hardly a surprise that the NHS is finding more cases when its National Chlamydia Screening Programme (NCSP) [540.15KB PDF] has seen the number of tests rise from around a million in 2008 to 1.5m in 2009. An extra 500,000 young people are asked to pee in a pot and doctors discover an additional 14,000 cases of chlamydia and a handful of other infections.

The findings don't mean there is more sexual infection but that we have identified more of what there is. It could be that STIs are falling. We don't know.

When I was a teenager virtually no-one got tested for chlamydia. The number of people diagnosed was close to zero. That didn't mean chlamydia wasn't a problem. We simply hadn't looked to see how big it was. Chlamydia, after all, is an infection that can display few obvious symptoms.

When I asked the Health Protection Agency why their press release today does not mention the fact that the proportion of people testing positive for STIs is going down they gave me some complicated explanation about how the data comes from different parts of the organisation.

"It just happens not to be the way we calculate the data because we were combining GUM (STI) clinic and NCSP data," an official told me.


The release does quote Dr Gwenda Hughes who runs the Agency's STI section conceding that her people are "doing more testing, such as through the National Chlamydia Screening Programme, and some of the tests we are using for gonorrhoea and herpes are more sensitive, so as a result we are now picking up more infections."

But she then goes on to say that "the rise in STIs is also due in part to unsafe sexual behaviour". Well, of course it is. What we don't know, though, is whether there is more 'unsafe sexual behaviour' or less. Too high? Certainly. Getting worse? The evidence is far from compelling.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that the fall in the proportion of people testing positive for STIs is simply a factor of an expanding programme.

Indeed it does seem that the proportion of tests conducted through education establishments (where infection rates are around 4%) has risen a little while the proportion done in sexual health advice clinics (where rates are about 11%) has fallen. The programme has a target of screening 35% of all 16-24-year-olds in England so I suppose it is inevitable they will have to work harder to find willing recruits.

It is not, though, necessarily a justification for national hand-wringing.

That the chlamydia screening programme puts the level of sexual infection among 16-24-year-olds at around 7-8% is useful information. One might regard it as shocking, but without comparable data from other years or other similar countries it simply shows us the size of the challenge not the direction of travel.

The fact, though, that more than a million and a half young people agreed to have their sexual health checked out last year must be a positive sign. It is, arguably, evidence of a generation which has been persuaded to take its responsibilities in this regard much more seriously than its forebears who only went to the clap clinic when it was much too late.

Drugs policy: The 'British system'

Mark Easton | 16:07 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Comments (149)

Sir Ian Gilmore's valedictory e-mail to colleagues at the Royal College of Physicians calling for laws to be "reconsidered with a view to decriminalising illicit drugs use" fits squarely in a British tradition which stretches back a century and more.

Writing in the Sun newspaper, Sir Ian said that:

"there will always be hard drug users but instead of treating them as criminals, we should treat them as patients".
"Heroin addiction is an illness and we should treat it as such, instead of acting on a knee-jerk reaction and putting people in prison."

This argument has been put forward by doctors ever since American campaigners started urging the UK government to ban recreational drugs at the beginning of the last century. Under increasing diplomatic pressure from the United States to honour various treaty obligations and toughen up our drug laws, in 1924 the UK government finally did what it usually does in such circumstances. It called in Sir Humphry.

Man holding syringe with heroinThe Rolleston Committee was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Humphry Rolleston, an eminent physician renowned for his book, Disease of the Liver, Gall-Bladder and Bile Ducts. The medical men around the table took a very medical view of the drugs problem, concluding after two years deliberation that addiction was a disease and an addict was ill.

The US saw drug abuse as a sin; the UK had decided it was a sickness. This therapeutic approach was seen as a direct challenge to the prohibitionists on the other side of the Atlantic, but it was also seen as a very British response to the problem.

In this country we are reluctant to ban things and the Rolleston doctrine became known internationally as the "British system". What it meant was that, while some patients were put on a withdrawal programmes in institutions, others were prescribed doses of pure heroin. It was a matter for doctors, not the police.

This philosophy shaped British drugs policy for 40 years until, in the mid-1960s, it was discovered that a handful of doctors were abusing the system. Well, not so much a handful as one doctor - Lady Isabella Frankau, wife of the venerated consultant surgeon Sir Claude, is said to have almost single-handedly sparked the 60s heroin epidemic. Records confirm that in 1962 alone she prescribed more than 600,000 heroin tablets to hundreds of users who flocked to her Wimpole Street consulting rooms.

Her patient list read like a Who's Who of 60s bohemian cool. Poets, actors, musicians, writers and refugees from the strict drug laws in the US and Canada knew that Lady F would not ask too many questions and, if you were a bit short of readies, might even waive her consultancy fee. American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker turned up at her door and has related how "she simply asked my name, my address and how much cocaine and heroin I wanted per day".

Lady Frankau's motivation was to heal, but what was later described as her "lunatic generosity", saw the end of the British system. As prescribing rules were tightened up, black-market Chinese heroin and other narcotics flooded in. Our relationship with drugs would never be the same again.

Between 1964 and 1968 the number of known teenage heroin addicts in Britain rose from 40 to 785. Criminal gangs had moved in to supply all manner of new substances to young thrill-seekers with money in their pockets.

The Home Secretary, James Callaghan, told Parliament how Britain faced a "pharmaceutical revolution" which presented such dangers that if the country was "supine in the face of them" it would quickly lead to "grave dangers to the whole structure of our society".

It was the beginning of the global "war on drugs". In 1971, US President Richard Nixon described drug abuse as "public enemy number one" as the United Nations passed a new convention on "psychotropic substances" which widened international controls to almost any mind-altering substance imaginable.

The same year, the British Parliament passed the Misuse of Drugs Act giving the home secretary direct authority to ban new drugs and increase the penalties associated with them. Political debate about the wisdom of prohibition was effectively closed down, the medical profession was side-lined and the criminal justice system became the main tool to fight drug abuse.

Forty years later and there are the first signs that the discussion is being re-opened. Even within the staunchly prohibitionist micro-climate of the United Nations, the weather is changing.

At the UN offices in Vienna last year, a meeting of academics and government representatives met ostensibly to discuss the relative merits of compulsory and voluntary drug treatment. What emerged was a discussion paper that recast the international debate along the lines of the long-forgotten British system [350KB PDF]. It stated:

"Drug dependence is a health disorder (a disease) that arises from the exposure to drugs in persons with these pre-existing psycho-biological vulnerabilities."
"Such an understanding of drug dependence, suggests that punishment is not the appropriate response to persons who are dependent on drugs. Indeed, imprisonment can be counterproductive."

With a foreword from the previously hawkish UN drugs chief Antonio Maria Costa, the paper proposes "moving from a sanction-oriented approach to a health-oriented one", reflecting how many countries were "looking for alternatives" to the expensive and ineffective criminal justice approach.

In Britain, the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC recently wrote in a report that "decriminalising personal use can have positive consequences; it can free up huge amounts of police resources, reduce crime and recidivism and improve public health".

There have been a number of reports from respected think tanks saying similar things and now we have Sir Ian Gilmore's intervention.

The Home Office has made it clear ministers remain opposed to such ideas.

"The government does not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach. Our priorities are clear; we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good."

The British public is also largely unconvinced, although a poll conducted by Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform recently tried to test the strength of feeling when offered a range of options. According to the survey, there was 70% support for legal regulation of cannabis and with magic mushrooms, amphetamines, and mephedrone there was a majority in favour of legalisation and regulation. Roughly three in 10 people said they would prefer the state to regulate rather than prohibit heroin supply.

It does seem that the assurance of the prohibitionists in Britain and across Europe, at the United Nations and even in the United States is under pressure. It may be that the British system is being slipped onto the table once again.

How welcoming is Britain?

Mark Easton | 16:12 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010


David Cameron today demanded that officials make it easier for foreigners to get visas to come to Britain. This, of course, is the same David Cameron who recently demanded that officials make it more difficult for foreigners to get visas to come to Britain.

Samantha and David CameronIt all depends on the kind of visa and the kind of foreigner.

The so-called immigration cap announced in June is aimed at reducing the number of foreigners being given work visas.

Today's announcement is about increasing the number of foreigners being given tourist visas. The word the government wants to send out is that Britain welcomes visitors who come to spend but not migrants who come to work.

The problem is that it is a mixed message and, as the prime minister said in his speech on boosting our tourism industry this morning, "it's a question of perception".

Mr Cameron said he was determined "to remove some of the obstacles that put people off coming here" and wanted "to improve the local delivery of visa services in key markets like China and India".

Interesting that he should mention India, of course, given the concerns that the Indian Commerce minister, Anand Sharma recently expressed in Downing Street about the "adverse effect" on relations with Britain of the new restrictions on work visas.

The prime minister is clearly aware of the huge benefits to UK plc from overseas visitors. "Tourism contributes £115bn to our economy every year" he pointed out. "It employs nearly 10% of our national workforce."

"We've just not been working hard enough to celebrate our country and home and sell our country abroad. Huge opportunities are being missed."

One of the keys to a successful tourist industry is that visitors are made to feel welcome. There are concerns, though, that in vital markets immigration controls aimed at long-term migrants are making holiday-makers and other short-term visitors think that the UK doesn't really want them.

Since the last government started introducing much tougher visa controls there has been a big drop in people coming to visit Britain. The number of visitor visas issued has fallen from 1.92m in 2006-7 to 1.67m in 2008-9.

In other words, a quarter of a million fewer travellers came to spend their cash in the United Kingdom than had done two years earlier.

Visitors from six countries currently require a visa to enter the UK for a visit of under six months duration: China, India, UAE, Thailand, Russia and most recently South Africa.

According to research by VisitBritain [2.11MB PDF], when it comes to the "welcome" potential tourists think they will get from a country, "39% of online respondents from China, Russia, and India perceive some difficulty in getting a visa to visit Britain".

The survey also found people are "far more likely to agree (49%) than disagree (16%) that getting a visa to visit Britain is expensive" and a substantial minority (42%) "agreed that the cost and trouble of getting a British visa means that they are more likely to holiday elsewhere."

Visa perceptions

The cost of a tourist visa to the UK has risen to £68, significantly more expensive than the £45 for visa to all the EU countries in the Schengen group.

A Chinese travel agent told VisitBritain that the need for a separate British visa when coming to Europe "seriously undermines" the United Kingdom's attractiveness as a destination.

"The UK visa policy is too strict and the cost of travelling to the UK is too high (1.5 times that of France). These two factors make travel agents unwilling to put much effort into promoting the UK."

However, there is an even greater factor which relates directly to efforts Britain has made to tighten its borders. The research in China found that the biggest issue for potential tourists "is not the cost of visas but the risk of being rejected".

VisitBritain's report concludes that, for the Chinese, "a black mark / rejection stamp in a passport is a worse situation than never having applied for the visa in the first place" and so the tough reputation of UK immigration officials may directly impact on people considering coming here as tourists.

Mr Cameron today spelled out the value associated with Chinese visitors. "We're their 22nd most popular destination" he said. "But Germany is forecast to break into their top 10. Why can't we?"

"Currently we only have 0.5% of the market share of Chinese tourists. If we could increase that to just 2.5% this could add over half a billion pounds of spending to our economy and some sources suggest this could mean as many as 10,000 new jobs."

So there is a difficult balancing act to be achieved. The government knows that making the UK appear welcoming to tourists with wads of travellers cheques has significant economic benefits, but worries that appearing welcoming to other foreigners may have negative repercussions.

An annual poll, the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index, measures the power and appeal of a nation's brand image. As part of the survey, respondents were asked to state how far they agreed with the following sentence: "If I visited this country, they would make me feel very welcome."

Perceptions of welcome

Only half of those asked (51%) agreed that the UK would make them feel very welcome, a result which put Britain in 14th equal place internationally. As the prime minister put it in his speech this morning: "Quite frankly, right now, we're just not doing enough to make the most of our tourism."

Whatever happened to coalition caution?

Mark Easton | 16:14 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Comments (49)

When power changes hands, the dynamics shift in subtle ways. For a time, we try to make the pieces fit into the existing frame, to analyse the new game as though it is being played by the old rules. But when events don't quite add up we are forced to reassess. I think we are in that period now, after almost 100 days of a new British government.

Cabinet meetingFew predicted the election result and its consequences, and the creation of the coalition was conducted to the noise of head-scratching pundits. A story-line was hurriedly developed to try and make sense of it all.

The tale was of a forced marriage doomed to fail, of profound philosophical differences eating away at the foundations of the governmental relationship.

The precarious nature of the arrangement would make radical policy impossible, it was assumed, an administration paralysed by the fear that any dramatic movement might bring the whole edifice crashing down.

But it hasn't really happened like that. The accepted principles of adversarial and tribal British politics have not played out in the way many had anticipated. There may well be cold shoulders and hot tempers within the coalition, inevitable tensions and disagreement, but there has been little to suggest the kind of internecine warfare that existed within New Labour from the moment it entered Downing Street.

As for the argument that consensus politics would translate as cautious politics, well, the first three months suggest the opposite. When people read the claim in the coalition's programme for government that it had "the potential for era-changing, convention-challenging, radical reform", the response from many was "yeah, yeah, yeah..."

But there can be no question that the wind has changed in Whitehall, driven by economic necessity perhaps, but around some departmental corners the squalls have an unexpected freshness and bite.

PrisonFew predicted the kind of major reform emerging from Richmond House, the Department of Health, signalling a rebalancing of power in the NHS in England. The noises coming from the Ministry of Justice suggest a philosophical rethink on the nature of punishment and rehabilitation.

The Department for Education appears unflinching in its resolve to push through significant change to England's state school system. The Home Office hints at a change of direction with a consultation on getting rid of Asbos and a determination to introduce elected police commissioners in England and Wales. Plans for electoral and constitutional reform are hardly uncontroversial either.

All of this as the machinery of government negotiates huge and deeply unpopular cuts to public spending.

This is a bold (critics will say reckless) government, not timid, and the narrative for the coalition needs urgently to be updated. If energies are focused looking for tiny cracks in the ship's hull, passengers and crew are not in position to shout "iceberg!" or "land ahoy!" as required.

It is far too early to know whether it can deliver, but almost without being noticed, the coalition has embarked on what Francis Maude can reasonably claim to be the most radical programme of any new government for 30 years. We would all benefit from careful scrutiny of the published policy plans as the detail emerges, not allowing our concentration to be broken by mesmerising whispers of backroom plots.

The combination of coalition and financial crisis has, curiously, given David Cameron's government more, not less, room to be radical. The administration knows it will be deeply unpopular anyway as the cuts bite and so there is not so much to lose in being audacious in other areas.

Coalition politics seems to strengthen the hands of departments which, within our political system, already enjoy more autonomy than their counterparts in other countries. It is as if, apart from the odd expletive from Andy Coulson, No 10 is content to practice the kind of hands-off decentralisation within Whitehall that the Conservative manifesto preached for the country more generally.

What effort there is from the centre to control the machine is being channelled through the Treasury as ministers negotiate their budgets ahead of the autumn statement.

The risk, as others have pointed out, is that the government opens up too many fronts and loses control. That may indeed sum up the new political narrative for the autumn - a government over-excited by the possibilities of power is in danger of exhausting itself before the real challenge of public-sector cuts has even begun.

But then again, perhaps there'll be another unexpected twist to the story-line?

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