New Delhi: Though India was among the first countries to be approached by the UK to negotiate a trade agreement, Graham Stuart, British minister for investment at the department for international trade, suggests that it is no more a priority country for such a deal. Stuart, who was in New Delhi to participate in the Global Mobility Summit, said the UK is currently reviewing its migration process, which may make it easier for Indian students to get working visas. Edited excerpts:

Is there growing tension in bilateral ties, with the UK refusing to act on India’s request to deny permission for a pro-Khalistan event, besides hosting financial fraudsters like Lalit Modi and Vijay Mallaya?

There are wrinkles in any relationship. We believe strongly in freedom of speech and, if some people are not advocating violence or breach of law, then they are allowed to express themselves, howsoever, unpopular that may be. The rule of law aspect also applies to the fugitives. I can’t comment on individual cases. What I can say is that we don’t offer any form of safe haven to those who break the law. Good thing about friends and allies is that you will have occasional differences of opinion, but that does not change the fundamentals of the relationship. The UK-India relationship is a very strong one.

Both sides in the past have expressed interest in having a free trade agreement (FTA) after the Brexit process is complete? How soon can the FTA negotiations start?

We have announced consultations with New Zealand, Australia and America. We have a shortage of bandwidth. For 40 years, we did not have a trade function, it was handled by the EU (European Union). We have the JETCO (Joint Economic and Trade Committee) meeting coming up later in the year. We will keep talking to India. The EU-India FTA negotiations have gone on for a long time. There are real opportunities for the UK outside the EU, and may be there are ways in which it is easier for us to do a deal.

So why a trade deal with India is no more a priority? When the Brexit talks started, India was one of the first countries that the UK had approached?

We are very keen to work with India. We are looking to do so in a number of ways. But you can have talks with a certain number of partners at a time.

India has also complained about the refusal of work visa to skilled migrants for minor offences, such as single cases of traffic violation or errors in filling up tax forms?

One of the reasons these stories crop up is because of the large number of Indians who successfully gain visas to the UK. There are more ordinary business visas granted to Indian citizens than there are to the rest of the world put together. Nine out of 10 first-time applicants are granted visas. It is quite a fair system, which is open to and encouraging to Indian expertise. The reason we have so many Indians is because Indians add so much to our economy and to the mutual benefit to our two nations.

Though Indian students show great interest in studying in the UK, the visa rules are considered very stringent. UK’s visa policy requires students to return home at the end of their courses.

The number of students to the UK last year grew by 32% to 15,400 and we will love to have more. There is no cap on the number of Indian students coming to the UK. There is a boarder migration review, including the student issue, and a report is expected to be published this month. Given the tightening up of the system, we are seeing far fewer students overstaying. I can’t prejudge, it’s another department’s decision on this, but I think we are in a good place to hope and expect that we may be able to make further progress because we have got the conditions right now. People are behaving and going back home when they are supposed to. As long as they do that, then the system need not be so tight.

How do you assess the current bilateral relationship between India and the UK?

The relationship between Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi and (Theresa) May is very strong. We have a growing trading relationship, with the UK being the largest European investor in India 2010 onwards. Over that period, we are the third largest foreign investor in India, overall. I am delighted to say that Indian companies overwhelmingly favour investments in Europe. We have a symbiotic and strengthening relationship that is working at the level of businesses and politically, with real commonality of purpose between the administrations of Modi and May.

By when do you realistically expect the Brexit process to be completed?

We believe by the end of March, 2019. We have an implementation period, which runs through the end of the following year. But we will have a deep partnership with our European friends and allies, thereafter. But in terms of getting mutual advantageous deal, there are three key stages of negotiations. We have completed the first two stages on time. That does not guarantee that we will be able to bring the current round of negotiations to a positive conclusion. But we are increasingly optimistic that is what exactly we will be able to do, which will help give certainty to businesses in India and otherwise who are investors in UK. However, we believe that a no-deal is better than a bad deal. But because of mutual interests of both Brussels and London, we believe that a reasonable deal is in sight and that it can be secured and eventually will pass through the Parliament.