Britain’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been rebuked by India for saying she has “reservations” about relaxing immigration restrictions as part of any trade deal between the two nations.
Prime Minister Liz Truss has said she hopes to seal a deal with New Delhi by Diwali at the end of this month.
The Indian government is pressing hard for an increase in work and study visas for its citizens to be included in any pact. Former prime minister Boris Johnson this year said a deal would lead to an increase of immigration from India.
In an interview with The Spectator, Ms Braverman said she had “concerns about having an open borders migration policy with India because I don’t think that’s what people voted for with Brexit”.
The High Commission of India in London suggested it was inappropriate of Ms Braverman to speak about the immigration issue even before a pact has been agreed.
“We have seen reports in the media regarding a statement attributed to Suella Braverman regarding the ongoing negotiation for an India-UK FTA, and immigration issues in this context,” the commission said.
“While certain issues pertaining to mobility and migration are currently under discussion as part of these negotiations, any comment on these matters may not be appropriate given that the negotiations are under way and that any arrangement will include issues of interest to both sides.
“As part of our wider discussions under migration and mobility, GOI [government of India] is committed to work with the government of UK to facilitate the return of Indian citizens who have overstayed their visa period here in the UK. As per data shared with the Home Office, as on date, action has been initiated on all of the cases referred to the High Commission.
“Further, UK has also undertaken to fulfil certain commitments as part of the migration and mobility protocol, on which we await demonstrable progress.”
Any deal will have to be beneficial to both parties, a representative of India’s foreign minister told reporters in an online briefing.
"There is interest on both sides to conclude the FTA at the earliest," the representative said.
"The migration mobility is an important element and there was an understanding in this regard, which we would expect that both sides honour it."
"We certainly are taking actions on our element and we would expect the UK side to also show demonstrable actions on that."
In response, a representative of the British government on Friday said a deal would only be signed with India when there is one that "meets the UK's interests”.
"We remain clear that we won’t sacrifice quality for speed and will only sign when we have a deal that meets the UK’s interests," they said.
As that deadline approaches, both sides have indicated that work remains to be done.
Kemi Badenoch, the UK’s International Trade Secretary, said earlier this week that the deal might not have everything that the services sector wants.
Ms Braverman’s comments about immigration from India marked the second time in less than a week that the Home Secretary expressed a view that put her at odds with government policy.
She was this week criticised by a senior government source for saying she believed the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights.
In comments that angered some in Downing Street, she told an event at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham that it would be best for the UK to leave the international treaty.
“I was pretty blunt about this issue in my leadership campaign,” she told the audience. “My position, personally, is that ultimately we do need to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.”
A source in No 10 responded by saying: “As Suella acknowledged, her personal views are contrary to government policy and if she wishes to make those views known within government, she should do so in a more appropriate setting.”
Ms Braverman’s outspokenness on sensitive issues is the latest sign that Ms Truss is struggling to maintain discipline in her Cabinet. This year’s party conference was marred by public disagreements between prominent Tory members, including Cabinet members.
In her interview with The Spectator, the home secretary reportedly accepted there may be flexibility for students and entrepreneurs from India who are seeking to come to the UK.
“But I do have some reservations,” Ms Braverman told the magazine. “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.”