Cobra’s crusading Lord bites back

The Indian-born peer and businessman talks to David Watts about his tireless campaigns to transform the UK’s detrimental immigration policies, and to revive its ailing curry restaurants.


Karan Bilimoria’s family background makes it almost perverse that he did not take up a military career. But he brings the same commitment and determination to his mission to help forge Britain’s future with the aid of Indian talent that his relatives brought to their distinguished service in the Indian army.
He’s a proud Parsi who gave the world Cobra beer, the favourite tipple accompanying Britain’s favourite food’curry.

Lord Bilimoria’s father, Lieutenant General Faridoon Bilimoria’popularly known as ‘General Billy”was the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Central Army Command of the Indian Army who also served as aide de camp to the first Indian president, Rajendra Prasad, and commanded the 2/5 Gurkha Rifles during the Bangladesh liberation war. He later went to review the work of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, recommending the recall of the force in 1990 and thus ending India’s military engagement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. Lord Bilimoria’s paternal grandfather, Nasservanji Bilimoria, was one of the first Indians to be commissioned as an officer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Lord Bilimoria believes Britain’s counter-productive immigration policy is jeopardising the country’s economic future and putting at risk the long-term relationship with India.

As a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords, Karan Bilimoria’s primary focus today is to modify Britain’s counter-productive immigration policy which is jeopardising the country’s economic future and putting at risk the long-term relationship with India, the source of so much talent which has fed Britain’s professional, business and academic firmament.

FEELING THE HEAT: The UK's curry restaurants are suffering from a lack of trained chefs
FEELING THE HEAT: The UK’s curry restaurants are suffering from a lack of trained chefs

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has taken it on as a ‘personal mission of hers to destroy the country’s reputation,’ he says. ‘It’s a very difficult situation for Cameron. Theresa May has really taken this on in a very aggressive manner both during the coalition and now, when she’s been re-appointed, she seems to have taken it up into another gear. Though it’s Conservative policy, from what I hear it’s very much driven by her and I don’t think for a moment that a lot of other cabinet ministers are on side but it’s her department’that’s my personal view.’

Since 2010 the number of Indian students coming to the UK has fallen by 50 per cent.

For Lord Bilimoria, 53, it’s personal because she has seen fit to reverse one of his achievements in the field’instituting the two-year work visa for graduates once they had finished their courses, which was already in place in Scotland and which he helped engineer with cross-party support for the measure.

This perceived hostile attitude is turning away young Indians from educating their children here, even though they themselves have benefited from it.

The effect has been immediate and since 2010 the number of Indian students coming to the UK has fallen by 50 per cent. But beyond that the May stance has helped fuel the rhetoric of the likes of Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence Party which took about 14 per cent of the vote during the May general elections.

But even for Farage, some of the Home Secretary’s proposals were too far out and George Osborne, the Chancellor of Exchequer, had to step in when she demanded that all foreign students should leave the country the day they graduate’a suggestion that prompted such headlines in Indian newspapers as: ‘Take our money and Go.’

‘So she’s on a rampage against immigration as a whole, which tars illegal and good immigration with the same brush. She’s economically illiterate when it comes to immigration. She’s damaging our country; damaging our reputation and our economy.

‘One of Britain’s greatest elements of soft power is our universities and our universities are the best in the world, along with America. In terms of international standing, international academics make up to 30 per cent in Cambridge and Birmingham, where I am chancellor.

‘The important thing with foreign students is not just the ’14 billion that they bring in but that the English students are enriched by the experience of mixing with their foreign contemporaries. And when they go back they become ambassadors for Britain, they will do business for Britain, they will come back to visit Britain many times and it’s through these links over generations that you build up trade, business, culture and influence.

‘In terms of the soft power, one out of seven world leaders has been educated at a British university, including the two most recent Greek finance ministers,’ Lord Bilimoria adds with a chuckle. India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, meanwhile, attended both Oxford and Cambridge.

The Australian Minister of Education publicly thanked Theresa May on a visit to Britain for her immigration policy, which had led to a boom in the number of Indian students travelling Down Under to study and, to add insult to injury, the French have announced an intention to double their number of Indian students by 2020.

For Lord Bilimoria, the problems with untrammelled immigration go back to Tony Blair’s decision to remove exit checks on Britain’s borders in 1998.

‘It was a foolish thing to do because we know who’s come to the country but we don’t know who’s left. If you don’t know who’s left you don’t know who’s overstayed’you’ve lost control of your borders.’ And he points out that the technology is there to re-institute the system with a string of Indian techno-companies standing by to do the work.

The noble peer led a debate in the House of Lords in 2012 on how religious and ethnic minorities contribute to Britain’26 peers of different backgrounds and religious communities spoke, saying that Britain would not be where it is today were it not for the contributions of those people.

‘We’re proud to be less than one per cent of the world’s population but we’re four per cent of the world’s economy. We’re the fifth largest economy in the world and we’re the second largest inward-investment destination in the world after the US. Forty-five per cent of that is financial services and the City of London is number one in the world’would it be number one if it were not for the amazing talent in the City? And the governor of the Bank of England is a Canadian’without that foreign input we wouldn’t be where we are today.’

He notes that the next President of the Royal Society will be Nobel laureate Sir Venkatraman (Venki) Ramakrishnan.

Sir Venki studies how genetic information is translated by the ribosome to make proteins, and the action of antibiotics on this process. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 with Tom Steitz and Ada Yonath and was awarded a knighthood in 2012.

Sir Venki is currently Deputy Director of the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. There have been 60 presidents of the Royal Society since it was founded in 1660, including Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, and Ernest Rutherford.

Amartya Sen has achieved the seemingly impossible as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and All Souls, Oxford. He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 and Bharat Ratna in 1999 for his work in welfare economics. He was also awarded the inaugural Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize in recognition of his work on welfare economics in February at a reception at the Royal Academy.

‘Sen could easily go to America. We need people like that’instead of attracting them you’re driving them away and this is sending the wrong message.’

Britain’s wealthiest businessmen are also of Indian origin’the Hindujas and the Mittels are worth more than ’22 billion between the two families. But there are likely to be fewer of them following in their footsteps, given the hostile visa policy now being pursued. And will there be such follow-on success for companies like Tata’already having grave difficulties getting visas for its staff’which now has the nation’s best export record through Jaguar-LandRover?

Apart from campaigning at the national political level for a change of heart, Lord Bilimoria is also working to rescue a street-corner business which is suffering grievously through an inability to bring in qualified staff from the subcontinent: the curry restaurant.

His Cobra beer company has launched an initiative whereby Michelin-starred Indian chefs are made available to coach less experienced curry chefs in restaurants all over the country, to raise their skills in the absence of the ability to hire staff from abroad.

‘The Indian restaurant business is two-thirds run by Bangladeshis. Those restaurants need skilled chefs from South Asia and they can’t get them because of the immigration rules. Now how ridiculous is that’when you have a cuisine which is the nation’s favourite?

‘When I give talks around the country I ask the audience: ‘How many of you love curry and eat curry regularly?’, and every hand in the audience will go up.

‘You want that cuisine, you love that cuisine and the reason it’s a favourite is because restaurateurs have come round to every village in every corner of the country as strangers, opened up restaurants and put back into the country and made curry the favourite food of this country.

‘On the other hand, you don’t allow them to bring in the skilled chefs that they need. It’s so wrong and it’s an ungrateful nation, quite frankly, to have that attitude.

‘So this is the message you send, so it’s absolutely damaging. It’s damaging, harmful and it’s wrong.’

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