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Belarus (Children's Visas)

Volume 472: debated on Monday 25 February 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watts.]

Order. If hon. Members are leaving the House, will they do so quickly and quietly, so that we can get on with the Adjournment debate?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am slightly alarmed to see that the Minister for Europe is replying to the debate. He has had a lot to do over the past few weeks, and I know that he has a very important race on Wednesday. I would not like him to do too much in advance of that race, considering that he beat me only by a smidgen two years ago. If you have any power to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you should advise him to go to his bed on Wednesday.

On the issue of visas for Belarusian children, I would first like to tell the House a wee story about a boy called Vova who came to the United Kingdom a few years ago when he was 17 years old. Many of his friends had come here years before then, but doctors had not wanted him to travel because of the state of his health. He was not expected to make a full recovery, and he was painfully thin. He had a great holiday in the United Kingdom, and the following year he made a full recovery. He is now the father of a healthy little girl.

Vova is one of many victims of the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in April 1986. There are thousands of people like him across Belarus—people suffering from thyroid cancer, bone cancer, leukaemia and many other horrific conditions. In Belarus, in the summer, the dust causes radiation levels to rise, so a few weeks of fresh air and clean food in the United Kingdom are a great release for those children. The Belarusian doctors believe that it boosts the children’s immune system for at least two years after the visit, and that it is vital for teenagers, who are often in their second or third bout of illness. Indeed, the death rate among teenagers is extremely high.

There are 12 or so charities that organise holidays for Belarusian children and bring about 5,000 children every year to the UK for recuperative holidays. The children are chosen by the Minsk-based Children in Trouble charity, which is organised by the parents of children with cancer. The children stay with volunteers in the UK, and they have enjoyed fantastic holidays here for at least two decades. The charities have brought more than 55,000 children to this country since the visits began. They have an excellent, first-class reputation, and are run by brilliant people. The former British ambassador to Belarus, Brian Bennett, is a leading player, as is my constituent, Carol Dean, from North Queensferry. Victor Mizzi, Linda Walker and Olwyn Keogh were recently recognised by the Queen for their work for Belarusian children and received the MBE.

All that excellent work, however, is under threat because of the manner of the introduction of biometric visas, which has been rushed, with little regard for the needs of the children, families and charities. I am appalled by the way in which they have been treated, and if urgent measures are not taken, their good work could be under threat. There is evidence that some charities are packing up, or thinking about doing so. If that is the case, it will be the children who lose out at the end of the day. The Minister will know that on 1 January this year biometric visas were introduced across the board. Finger scans and a digital photograph are required. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office website states:

“The recording of this biometric data is a quick process, taking on average no more than two minutes. It will not lead to delays in issuing visas.”

It all sounds very simple, but that is far from the case. There are three main problems with the introduction of biometric visas. Since September last year, the children have been required to take a trip up to Minsk to receive their visa. For some of them, it is a 10-hour round trip of hundreds of miles on a bus. Those children, as I have explained, are often in poor health, and a 10-hour round trip is not something I would advise them to undertake.

There is a major expense, too, for the charities involved, which have to hire coaches to transport the children. The Italians and Germans organise more holidays than the UK for the children, and I should like to know from the Minister whether those countries have been consulted, and whether a joint effort has been undertaken with them to make sure that we can learn lessons from their measures, just as they can from ours. There seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach to the whole world, but there must be more than one way to demonstrate under the rules that

“suitable arrangements have been made”.

I understand that mobile visa units may be in place by summer. Can the Minister tell us more about that, and whether they will be guaranteed to be in place, on time, without any delays? Volume, or the number of children, is an issue, too. As I have explained, 4,000 to 5,000 children travel here every year, but because they all travel in summer, they are more than likely to apply for visas at the same time, so there will be a rush for visas from spring until the summer, when they go on holiday. There have been reports of significant waits at the embassy in Minsk, so the two-minute wait time that was given is unrealistic, as it will be much longer. The charities fear that there will be a sudden rush and the system will not be able to cope. Can the Minister give us a guarantee that there will be no massive queues and no massive delays?

The third issue concerns advance notice. The British embassy in Minsk told the charities:

“UK legislation requires that, in issuing a visa to a child under 18, our Entry Clearance Officers must be satisfied that a sponsoring organisation . . . can demonstrate that suitable arrangements have been made for travel to, and reception and care in, the United Kingdom.”

Officials have interpreted that as meaning:

“To ensure full compliance with these rules we will now require all visa application forms to be filled out in full, including details of the host family and the address where the child will stay”.

To me, it is quite a leap from

“can demonstrate that suitable arrangements have been made”

to requiring full details of exactly where the child will stay in the United Kingdom and the host family’s name. It seems to be quite a tight interpretation of the rules that have been set down.

That will cause significant difficulties for the families, the charities and the children involved. I have already explained that these are sick children from a country that is quite far away, and that volunteer families host the children in the United Kingdom. That involves constant changes. Sometimes the children are sick and drop out; sometimes the families are no longer able to take the children. We need a system that is much more flexible and that allows last-minute notification of the children’s destination.

There is also a need to ensure proper bonding between the children and the host families, so the matching process is vital. Sometimes it is long and complex. When they apply for visas, the children might not know which families they will stay with in the United Kingdom. Flexibility is crucial. Instead of the host family name on the visa, perhaps the name of the organiser of the trip could be entered on the visa. Ultimately, they are responsible for the children when they are in the United Kingdom, and that would meet the requirement to demonstrate that all arrangements have been made, as specified in the rules. The interpretation of the rules has been excessive. All the families have been Criminal Records Bureau-checked, and the charities also vet the host families, so the triple lock seems unnecessary.

I have explained the three issues—the distance travelled, the numbers involved and the advance notice required. The treatment of the charities has been appalling. Instead of respect and consideration for them, there is a strong whiff of suspicion about their motives. Anybody who questions the rules is viewed with suspicion, as though their only interest was in harming the children. The charities have gained a tremendous reputation over many years and have brought over 55,000 children to the United Kingdom.

After several requests for a meeting last year to discuss the changes, a hurried meeting with UKvisas was finally organised in December. Not surprisingly, it was a hostile meeting, but at the end a formal response was promised, as well as a consultation document to be published in January. Despite the Minister promising in a letter to one of the charities that a formal response would be forthcoming, three months have passed and the charities have received no formal notification or outcome from that meeting. There seems to be a strangely aggressive “we know best” approach to the whole affair, and anyone who questions it is viewed with suspicion. The charities have a tremendous track record and should not be treated in such a manner.

Such treatment is mild compared to the way in which the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline has been treated. Three years ago that charity took firm action to remove from the charity one of its CRB-checked hosts, about whom it had concerns. No action was taken by the authorities but three years later, without notice, visas for children who were about to travel to the United Kingdom were revoked, one and a half days before they were due to travel. The children’s flights were booked, the host families were ready for the children, the kids’ bags were packed and everybody was ready to go, but the holiday had to be cancelled as a consequence of the revoked visas. That cost the charity a considerable amount of time and money. After that, the visas were suspended for a period of weeks. UKvisas told the charity that Dorset police were carrying out an investigation into the charity following the actions of the individual whom I mentioned three years prior to the visas being revoked. However, Dorset police told it that that was not the case and that there was no such investigation. There were no interviews with the charity and there was no investigation.

The offences carried out by the individual did not happen on the charity’s watch; the charity was not responsible for them, yet it suffered the consequences of his actions. It was treated in a high-handed manner three years after the event took place. Given the work that the charity has done over many years with thousands of children, treating it in that manner one and a half days before the children were due to go on holiday was completely disrespectful.

The final aspect of what I view as the disrespect towards the charities is the anonymous calls that have taken place recently. Hosts in the United Kingdom, and the families in Belarus and their schools, have been receiving anonymous calls seeking details of the children travelling to the United Kingdom. If they refuse to supply those details, there is a threat that the visit will be cancelled and the visas revoked. They receive no advance written notification of what we now understand are official phone calls and, not surprisingly, they consider them threatening and alarming. Those people have the right not to be treated in that way; they should be given more consideration.

Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline and all the other charities deserve an apology for how they have been treated. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) was unable to attend tonight’s debate, but he wanted me to know the importance that he attaches to the work of the Belarusian charities for the Chernobyl children. He sent me a short e-mail, which states:

“There is little doubt in my mind that the introduction of biometric visas under the proposed scheme will give the charity a continuing and considerable cost overhead. This would have the effect of curtailing the work of the charity with fewer children from Belarus enjoying the benefits of recuperative holidays in the UK.”

The hon. Gentleman has my full support, and I have his.

I have four recommendations for the way forward. First, until a proper working system is in place, biometric visas for children from Belarus should be suspended. We need to work with the charities and our EU partners to develop a system that can be piloted in a particular region so that we know that it works and can cope with the volume and with having mobile units throughout the country. We need to suspend the current system so that none of the holidays this summer is threatened.

The second issue is about the named representative, and whether that could be the host family in the United Kingdom, and their address, or the organiser from the charity. In my firm view, the charities have proven themselves to be appropriate and responsible and should have their names on the visas. They have the child protection systems to cope with that.

Thirdly, we should consider how the United States deals with such visas; it requires visas only for over-14-year-olds from Belarus. We should consider adopting such a system. Finally, we should issue an apology to the Chernobyl children’s charities for how they have been treated and we should consider some form of compensation for the cancelled Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline holidays and the extra costs involved for travelling to Minsk for the visas.

I should like to read a short statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. It says:

“The UK continues to have serious concerns about the lack of respect for human rights in Belarus. Since the flawed presidential elections, the Belarusian regime has continued to crack down on the opposition and increasingly to stifle any dissent. We deplore this situation and the unjustified actions taken to prevent demonstrators, human rights campaigners, opposition leaders and independent trade unionists from exercising their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”

The Chernobyl children’s charities do a fantastic job, reaching out to thousands of families in Belarus, offering them the hand of friendship, and giving them relief from their regime and their debilitating environment, as well as giving them a taste of our democracy. If we believe that those are good actions, we should be offering them encouragement and support, not hindrance.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) on securing it. It is the culmination of his continued effort to highlight the issue. I am sure that until he achieves the outcome that he wishes for, he will rightly continue to campaign.

I was struck by the hon. Gentleman’s comments about our impending personal confrontation over the next couple of days. He suggested that in the most recent Westminster mile, I beat him by a smidgen. I think that only in Fife could half a minute be described as a smidgen, but I will leave that for the moment; perhaps his recollection is more accurate than mine.

Let me start where the hon. Gentleman concluded by making a general point about human rights in Belarus. He is right in his observation about the lack of democracy and human rights and the way in which basic freedoms are curtailed, the rights of the state are taken for granted, and the rights of individuals are crushed at almost every opportunity. I am glad that he made those points, which give me an opportunity to put on the record for the House that we call on the Government of Belarus to release political prisoners—in particular, Mr. Kazulin, who should be released from prison today, unconditionally, because that is the right thing to do, especially after his bereavement following the death of his wife in the past few days. That is an issue of basic human rights. Not only the United Kingdom Government, but the international community more generally, demand his urgent and unconditional release, and I make that call again on behalf of the UK Government.

The hon. Gentleman raised a substantial number of specific points, and I will do my best in the time available to respond to as many as possible. After the debate, I will be happy to take a personal interest in all the issues that he raised, particularly the responses to the charities and biometric testing. I will take personal responsibility for undertaking further inquiries and then meet him, and any other Members from both sides of the House who continue to take an interest in the issue.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the charities involved have worked hard over the past 21 years to support the children and their families and, despite his concerns, we continue to support strongly their efforts. There is a real benefit in allowing the children who have been affected by Chernobyl to visit the UK for a period of respite care. Indeed, the House will wish to know that in 2007 the British embassy in Minsk issued about 3,400 visas to children sponsored by Chernobyl charities.

Let me respond to the hon. Gentleman’s observations about biometrics. He asked about the purpose of and rationale for biometric testing. He is of course aware that it is undertaken to protect the integrity of the visa system and to protect our customers regardless of which nation they come from. It is not an enjoyable job to design an eliminative system to protect our borders from those who want to enter the UK illegally, and some genuine visitors will be affected. These children undoubtedly fall into the latter category of people who wish to come to the United Kingdom for good reasons of personal respite and support for their families—not just to see our democracy and how another society works but because of a range of objective reasons. Not only does such a visit lift their spirits, but it provides a therapeutic opportunity for the children and their families.

In respect of biometrics, the British Embassy and UKvisas have worked hard to develop a unique pilot project for these children that will be in place this summer during the period of applications and visits. Embassy staff will make a series of visits to Mogilev, which is the region where most of the children live, with a mobile biometric kit to take the children’s details. That will save them the expense—important to most, if not all of those families—and trouble of travelling to Minsk. Given the way in which the hon. Gentleman passionately described the circumstances in which many of these families live and the difficulties they experience in making that remarkable journey to Minsk, that process should lighten their load and improve their circumstances in an important way.

We will need the charities’ active co-operation to ensure the success of what is a unique experiment in unique circumstances. We have dedicated significant additional resources for the pilot, and we will continue to provide free visas to all Chernobyl charity children. I want to make it clear that the introduction of biometric testing for UK visa applications does not represent any change in policy on visas for Chernobyl children or towards the charities arranging visits.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of further points, particularly about the names on the visa, and the person or organisation who would have named responsibility for children when they visit the UK. My advice at the moment is that, given the duty of care imperatives relating to such vulnerable children, UKvisas requires confirmation of the host details for each visit, and needs to ensure that those hosts have been suitably cleared with the Criminal Records Bureau. However, if the hon. Gentleman has additional evidence that he wishes to bring to this conversation, I would be happy to listen to his observations. I would be happy to meet him to discuss the matter.

The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about engagement with charities concerning the visa changes. I understand that there has been regular contact with the charities about the changes, and it is crucial to the UK Government and to the children and families involved that the charities have an effective way to input their views and their experience of the process over two decades. It is important that we listen to those experiences.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the meeting on 3 December involving the major charities and other stakeholders, including the charity commissioners and a representative of the Home Office’s children’s champion. The hon. Gentleman said that, so far, there had been no response as a result of that meeting. As a consequence of the points that he has made, I will personally inquire tomorrow as to when the charities will receive the response to which they are entirely entitled. A response should be given timeously and it should be one of substance, so that the charities can enter into a continued conversation about the best way forward for the arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman will know that approximately 60 charities offer such holidays and breaks in the United Kingdom. Those charities have expertise and they know the value of the programme, because they estimate that even one month away can boost a child’s immune system for up to two years.

I thank the Minister for agreeing to provide a response from the meeting in December. I want him to understand fully why it is absolutely essential that the name on the visa is the name of the organisation and of the individual who is organising the trip rather than that of the host family. The utmost flexibility is required because the fact that the children are often sick and the families are volunteers mean that the situation changes constantly. To ensure that the matching process works adequately, the decision about where the children stay should be delayed as long as possible. The charities have the appropriate systems and regulations in place, they are checked, they arrange for families to have CRB checks and they vet them, and so I urge the Minister to consider it appropriate for them to have some sort of delegated responsibility.

As part of my reflection on this evening’s debate, I shall look into the specific, fair points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

I know that time is against us, and so may I tell the hon. Gentleman that the whole House thanks him for his work and for initiating the debate in the manner in which he has done? I know that he will have the gratitude of the charities, which is more important than the thanks of the House. More important still, he will have the gratitude of many of the children who have benefited so much over recent decades from the opportunity to come to the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o’clock.