[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
I am delighted to be able to introduce the debate. There is no doubt that immigration is a sensitive and often controversial subject. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss ways in which we might reshape our immigration system so that we have control not only over the numbers coming into the United Kingdom, but over the nature of those individuals wishing to work, study and make our country their home.
To be absolutely clear, I am not advocating an increase in immigration. I am, however, seeking to establish ways in which we can have better immigration. What do I mean by better immigration? I am referring to the re-establishment of the United Kingdom’s ability to be selective about who enters and settles in our country and the ability to favour immigration from countries with which Britain enjoys long-standing cultural and historical links, where English is the common language and with which we share values and principles, the rule of law, and common judicial and parliamentary systems. I am of course talking about the countries of the Commonwealth of nations, most notably the 15 realms with which we have an even closer bond and shared constitutional link in Her Majesty the Queen, who remains as much their Head of State as she does ours.
In spite of those special ties, since our accession to what was known at the time as the Common Market, Britain appears to have discarded the potential for trade, immigration and co-operation with the Commonwealth to accommodate the new European political union, which dominates so much of how we are governed today. It is time for a radical rethink.
Our immigration system is in need of complete reform and the British people are demanding change. Indeed, the time has surely come to enforce a total overhaul of the way we operate immigration in the United Kingdom, but we can do so only if a British Government, elected by the British people, can decide what British immigration policy is. We have a broken immigration system—a system in which we have neglected the possibility of positive immigration from our wider Commonwealth family to accommodate uncontrolled and indiscriminate immigration from within the EU. As a result, for example, over the past 13 years immigration from Australia and New Zealand—two nations with which we have a shared history and culture like no other, expect perhaps for Canada—has almost halved, whereas immigration from EU continues to rise at a rapid pace.
The members of the Commonwealth network of nations and territories are not part of the EU, apart from Malta, Cyprus and Gibraltar, so they have been the losers as our UK Government have sought to reduce immigration. Meanwhile, the citizens of any country that happens to have been accepted into the EU can freely enter our country without restriction.
Immigration has always been a feature of Britain’s social and economic development, over many centuries, and it has been without doubt overwhelmingly positive, with the vast majority coming to our country to work and contribute as hard-working people. It must surely be, however, the absolute right of every nation—especially a country the size of the United Kingdom, where there have to be limits—to control its own national borders and to determine its own immigration policy. With free movement from the EU, though, we have given up that right.
My hon. Friend is making some strong points. He mentioned the 15 dominions in which the Queen is still Head of State. Does he agree that because those countries have decided to keep the Queen as Head of State, their citizens should be afforded certain privileges on arrival at our ports of entry? It is ridiculous that they are confined by those barriers that accommodate the rest of the world. Those people should have special privileges afforded to them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. When he was a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he was a champion of Her Majesty’s realms and territories. I feel that it is shameful that subjects of Her Majesty arriving at Heathrow airport are treated as if they were from any other country in the world. There are no special privileges, nothing whatever, and that is wrong. It is time for us to look at things afresh. He will recall my 2012 United Kingdom Borders Bill, which highlighted this very issue and asked the Government to take action, which, sadly, they have not done so far. I will come back to that.
The truth is that, if we are serious about restoring control of immigration and widening the base of potential future migrants to our country so that our friends from the Commonwealth may again have opportunities to live and work in this country, the EU doctrine of free movement without any control or restriction whatever must end. That would not prevent the UK from agreeing bilateral reciprocal arrangements with other EU nations, or indeed from continuing to accept EU citizens who met the criteria decided by Her Majesty’s Government and who came here, as the vast majority do, to work and contribute to the economy of our nation. Britain would, however, have the opportunity to set the rules in so far as who did and did not come in. Those from Her Majesty’s realms and territories and from the wider Commonwealth would have the greater opportunities that are reserved now only for citizens of the EU.
Surely it makes sense to establish a system with substance and purpose—one that continues to allow the brightest and best from Europe to come to Britain, but no longer alienates or excludes those from places around the world with which Britain has enjoyed much longer and closer historical links. Being a subject from one of Her Majesty’s realms or being from a Commonwealth nation should count for something when looking to visit, work, study or live in the United Kingdom. At the moment, it appears to count for little. That is our fault and we should not be proud of it.
The Commonwealth is an underutilised resource for the United Kingdom. It offers vast opportunities outside the uncertainty, stagnation and turbulence that we have endured over the past decade.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Does my hon. Friend also agree that the Commonwealth is increasingly becoming a successful organisation that people want to join? In recent years, Mozambique and Rwanda have joined, and Burundi is very much knocking on the door and would like to enter.
Once again, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The Commonwealth is an organisation of the future. For a time, the FCO tended to feel that the Commonwealth was no longer relevant and that we should focus entirely on the EU, but the world has changed. Our historical, traditional links with the Commonwealth of nations can provide a way forward for Britain, so he is completely correct. Thus, not only are former colonies wanting to be part of the Commonwealth, but countries that have never had any link with the British Crown, such as Rwanda, Mozambique and Cameroon, want to join, which shows that the Commonwealth has a great future. We, as the United Kingdom, need to do more to harness the Commonwealth and make it stronger if we are to succeed in making it as relevant to our future as it has been to our past.
For so many years, British foreign policy has failed to grasp that concept, preferring to shun our traditional ties and place most of our eggs in the EU basket. Now that it is clear that trade with the wider world is becoming more important by the day, it is imperative that we change course and grasp the opportunities that the nations of the Commonwealth represent.
My hon. Friend is a great champion of the Commonwealth and those from the Commonwealth who reside in the UK. He talks about the Commonwealth’s great past and future. Does he agree that the Government have done a lot to foster trade links with other Commonwealth countries? We have seen our bilateral trade with India grow significantly. What more does he think this Government or future Governments can do to ensure that that trade increases significantly over the next decade?
My hon. Friend is completely correct that this Government have done more than any other in my memory to make the Commonwealth more significant and to develop trade and co-operation with it, but we can go only so far because, as he will know, as a nation we can sign up to trade deals with countries only via the EU—again, the EU is a block to us utilising our Commonwealth network for trade and co-operation.
Until we have a new relationship with our neighbours on the continent—one that is less of a political union—and again have the freedom to agree trade agreements, deals and immigration arrangements, we can go only so far, however positive the Conservative-led Government have been in this respect. We need to alter our relationship with the EU to allow us the freedom to develop greater trade with the Commonwealth.
Does my hon. Friend then feel that if we are going to renegotiate our relationship with the EU, we should have similar discussions in parallel with some Commonwealth countries, particularly on trade, to see what sort of relationship we can come up with and what the British people prefer?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As a vice-chairman of the Conservative party, he does good work with Commonwealth countries, and I commend his enthusiasm. We need to decide for ourselves, as a nation, what we want to do not only with Europe but with the rest of the world. Part of that process should perhaps be to consult our Commonwealth friends on how our relationship can be developed in tandem with a renegotiated arrangement with the European Union. They are two sides of the same coin. We all want trade and co-operation with Europe, and good immigration from Europe as well, but sadly we have gone down that road to the exclusion of developing all those things with our Commonwealth friends. A reconfiguration is well overdue.
The UK has the largest Commonwealth diaspora in the world and many people in all our constituencies come from a Commonwealth background or have Commonwealth ancestry, yet it is much harder for someone to come to the United Kingdom if they are a citizen of the Commonwealth than if they are a citizen of an EU member state. Britain needs a renewed sense of balance, fairness and opportunity in our immigration and visa regime.
The Prime Minister has a difficult task. Having pledged to cut net immigration numbers, he has discovered that although he can reduce immigration from the Commonwealth and wider world, he is unable, under current treaty obligations, to reduce it from the European Union. That means that the only policy lever left open to him is a reduction in immigration from outside the EU—meaning, of course, the Commonwealth. The Minister will understand that that has created unintended consequences for Commonwealth nationals. For that reason, I call on her to lead a significant review of Government immigration policy and to establish a system that works for the United Kingdom, not one that is imposed on us and over which we have no ultimate control.
Apart from the restoration of British control over immigration, which would require a fundamental change in our relationship with the European Union, there are many other things that could be done in the meantime gradually to rebuild our partnership with the Commonwealth and, most especially, Her Majesty’s realms. Here are some ideas to get the Minister started. First, we should look at the UK’s tier 5 youth mobility visa. With over 60% of the Commonwealth population under the age of 30, that visa is of fundamental importance. Before 2008, the UK had a youth visa that included all Commonwealth nations and allowed any young person in the Commonwealth the chance to apply to visit and work in the United Kingdom for two years. After 2008 that visa was reformed and only four nations were granted such access: Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand. The scheme has now been extended to Monaco, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
I would like the Government to consider a more Commonwealth-oriented view when looking at extending the youth visa. Working towards restoring Commonwealth countries to the visa would make young people see the Commonwealth as something of value rather than an abstraction. Importantly, the youth visa is based on reciprocal quotas—the numbers of young Britons leaving the UK should balance the number of people entering, thereby keeping net migration stable. Equally, the visa’s very nature is transient; it is not a route to remain. The changes that I propose would rejuvenate the UK’s Commonwealth policy, repair relations and replenish our soft power, so I urge the Minister strongly to consider such a plan.
The second policy proposal is the creation of a Commonwealth concession for tourist and business visitor visas. Citizens of 21 Commonwealth nations need a tourist visa to visit the UK, while citizens of 50 need a business visitor visa. Both visas, which last for six months, cost £83. That fee is perceived as making it more difficult for many Commonwealth citizens to enter the UK for tourism or business. A Commonwealth concession, set at the discretion of the Home Office, would go a long way towards building UK-Commonwealth relations.
Whatever their reason for visiting, Commonwealth tourists are important contributors to the UK economy. Commonwealth Exchange is a think-tank that promotes the trading, educational and strategic potential of the Commonwealth in the UK, and I am proud to serve on its advisory board. It has highlighted that official figures for visitors from a number of Commonwealth nations, and for those visitors’ average spends, nearly match, or else equal or even surpass, the figures for Chinese tourist visitors. There is certainly a strong economic case for increased Commonwealth tourist and business visitor visas, which I hope the Minister will also consider.
However, I put forward that idea against the backdrop of a preoccupation with Chinese tourists, the most recent demonstration of which was the Chancellor’s announcement that the Treasury will refund the first 25,000 visas for Chinese visitors between 2015 and 2017—Chinese visitors, but not Commonwealth ones. That policy is wrong-headed, especially at a time when the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, has been refused entry to Hong Kong by China. We should not be awarding China free UK visas when it refuses entry to democratically elected parliamentarians and is not acting in the spirit of the joint declaration. Does the Minister agree that there are Commonwealth nations that are far more deserving of favourable visa policies?
In addition, it has been reported to me that the British Bangladeshi community has experienced unnecessary delays, lack of communication and inefficiency in the processing of visa applications, among other things, since the visa section was transferred from Bangladesh to New Delhi. Two years ago, the Prime Minister and I attended the British curry awards, which were founded by Enam Ali MBE. Some of the guests who were invited to that event could not obtain their visas in time. A similar thing happened at last year’s world travel market event in London, when several business delegates could not attend because of the delay in processing their visa applications at the New Delhi office. I hope that the Minister will look at that matter because Britain is losing business and good people who want to come to our country for legitimate reasons are being preventing from doing so.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need an explanation from the Minister about the hub-and-spoke visa issuing system? Certainly in Africa, a number of smaller Commonwealth countries are now spokes and have to feed through to hubs such as Accra, Pretoria or Nairobi. It is obviously incredibly important that that system is as efficient as possible so that people from smaller Commonwealth countries who want to come to this country to trade, for a holiday or to do business have their visas dealt with as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have all heard of concerns in that respect. The creation of hubs in various parts of the world, which are not as accessible for people, has clearly been a cost-cutting measure by the FCO, but the system makes life very difficult for people who need to get visas quickly so that they can come to our country. I hope that the Home Office, together with the FCO, will try to find a more efficient way of dealing with the problems that we are speaking about.
The question of business visas is equally important. Commonwealth countries often share our language and have a similar business culture, with similar legal systems based on the common law. The Commonwealth has key developed and emerging economies, so it makes economic and political sense to place a high value on business visits through a Commonwealth concession. That is another idea for the Minister to take back to her Department.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the United Kingdom Borders Bill, which I introduced in the House in 2012. Although the Bill did not progress to Second Reading, there was enormous support for the principles contained in it. The idea that there should be more accessibility for citizens from Her Majesty’s realms received widespread support from several political parties. Following the Bill’s presentation, I received many messages of support from across the UK and the wider Commonwealth. I sincerely believe that we must not fall into the trap of underestimating the significance of such a relatively simple change. It is a travesty that citizens from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Jamaica, together with those from all Her Majesty’s realms, have to queue up in the foreign nationals channel at London Heathrow airport and other points of entry into the United Kingdom while citizens from EU countries that have never had any historical connection to the Crown or the United Kingdom are allowed to enter alongside British citizens simply by virtue of their EU membership.
Since introducing my Bill, I have become aware of the SmartGate scheme in Australia and New Zealand, which allows for a separate queue for nationals from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US. That shows that a similar procedure could be adopted in the UK in the context of the Commonwealth realm, thus illustrating powerfully the renewed value of being a subject of Her Majesty’s realms. Interestingly, a citizen of the UK, as a realm, would also have the chance to choose which airport queue they wanted to go through. It could be the EU/EEA/Switzerland queue, or one for Commonwealth realms. It would be nice to have that choice because we are, of course, part of both. I might be pre-empting the Minister by saying that the UK has made it easier for Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians to visit the UK through the registered traveller scheme, but although that policy is welcome, its scope is too limited, and we could and should do better.
If the Government wanted to be bolder, they could consider the London Mayor’s proposals for bilateral mobility zones between economically developed Commonwealth nations—they are now dubbed “Boris bilaterals”. Commonwealth Exchange has found that that could work on a similar premise as the trans-Tasman travel arrangement, which exists between Australia and New Zealand. That might prove difficult, but I am aware that such a proposal has support from the New Zealand Prime Minster and the tacit backing of Tony Abbott’s Government in Australia. The UK holds the key to advance such a policy, so will the Minister undertake to examine the proposition and make a statement?
I would like the Minister to answer several key questions. Will she meet me and a delegation from Commonwealth Exchange to discuss Commonwealth immigration and visas in greater detail? What assessment has been made of the tier 5 youth mobility visa, and which nations is her Department looking at adding? Will she update the House on visa developments with Jamaica and South Africa, as those nations have had tourist visa restrictions for 11 and five years respectively? Will her Department consider ways to create a Commonwealth concession for the tourist and business visitor visas? Will she conduct a feasibility study for a pilot of a Commonwealth realm airport queue or smart gate at Heathrow and Gatwick? Has she made an assessment of the London Mayor’s labour mobility zone between Australia and New Zealand, and will she make a statement?
I believe that Britain has focused for far too long on the European Union, which I believe is distracting us from the rest of the world and the opportunities that lie beyond the shores of Europe. In 1973, we in this country turned our back on our Commonwealth cousins, which was the most short-sighted act carried out by any British Government in my lifetime. Let us begin to end that cold shoulder treatment in 2015. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be the one to lead that change of direction.
In 2010, the Government said that they were putting the “C” back into the FCO, but only with a concerted effort across Departments, and particularly the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Home Office, will the UK be able to state proudly that it has Commonwealth policies fit for the 21st century. We must remove ourselves from the unhelpful and unfounded mindset that association with the Commonwealth is nothing more than reminiscing about Britain’s colonial past and instead recognise that there are huge economic, cultural and diplomatic opportunities that are today being missed. That short-sightedness has done nothing to help our country or the countries of the Commonwealth, and we must move on from it once and for all. Let us begin today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on his powerful speech and on bringing the subject before the House. I shall make a few remarks on visas, starting with visitors visas, but want to preface that by underlining the importance of the Commonwealth, which my hon. Friend and other contributors have rightly emphasised.
The population of the Commonwealth far outweighs that of the EU and one Commonwealth nation alone, India, has a bigger population than the countries of the EU put together. Economic development in Commonwealth countries—not only the fantastic growth in India, but the substantial growth in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia—has shown that the Commonwealth is, as my hon. Friend said, the place of the future. That is why countries have been queuing up to join. I am talking about countries that did not have a particular historical connection with the United Kingdom, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, which are already part of it, and Cameroon. Part of that country was under British administration, part under German, and at one time, after the first world war, part was under French administration. Burundi is also seeking to join the Commonwealth, and I believe that other countries have expressed interest.
It is therefore vital that we maintain, and indeed enhance, the links with Commonwealth countries. That is not only about history; it is about business opportunities. For instance, in Tanzania—I refer Members to my business interests in Tanzania, which are in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—the United Kingdom is the single biggest investor and trading partner. These days, we tend to think that China has taken over everywhere in Africa, but that is not the case at all. In many countries, the United Kingdom is still a major trading partner and investor, and it is, indeed, growing in importance in those countries.
On the issue of visitor visas, a few months ago, a Tanzanian lady, Rhodi Samwell, was invited to the United Kingdom on an extremely important mission. She works for the Anglican diocese of Mara on female genital mutilation, and she is building a safe house in the area for women and girls who do not wish to be subjected to that practice. The House has debated this issue many times in the past year, and I know the Minister is keenly concerned about it.
At my invitation, Rhodi Samwell was coming to this country, and indeed to the House, to talk to the all-party group on Tanzania about her work, but she could not get a visa. Her application, which was processed in Pretoria, was refused. Only after a large number of Members of the House and the other place wrote to those involved and pressed her case was she finally able to come here on a visa.
This lady was in full-time, secure employment with the Anglican diocese of Mara. She had the backing of the Tanzania Development Trust, the Britain-Tanzania Society and many other reputable organisations, which bore witness to the fact that she would be supported while she was here and that she was planning to return. Indeed, the very reason she was coming here was to help to enable her to return home to fulfil her dream of setting up a safe house for women and girls. However, the United Kingdom was unable to issue her with a visa without pressure from Members of Parliament and without volunteers across the country putting in a great deal of time and effort. That does the United Kingdom’s reputation no good.
I am glad to say that, ultimately, Rhodi Samwell was able to come here, and she gave an excellent talk in the House of Commons, alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who was then an International Development Minister. We were delighted to see her. She gave talks all across the country. As a result of her visit, the remaining money needed to build the safe house was collected— indeed, school children in my constituency also contributed. The safe house is now in operation, and more than 100 girls and women have found help there.
That is just one instance, but I have heard of many others from right hon. and hon. Members in both Houses. People are doing fantastic work for non-governmental organisations or charities, and we want to hear from them first hand. They are invited here, and they will be fully provided for, but the only obstacle is a visa. Most of the time, these are people from Commonwealth countries.
The second issue I want to bring up is business visas. It is vital that visas are made available quickly and easily for those with whom we wish to do business. Before coming to this place, I travelled to Tanzania and other countries fairly frequently on business. As a British citizen, I could send my passport, together with the necessary documents, to the Tanzanian high commission in London, and sometimes I would receive my business visa back within three days. However, Tanzanian business people, who are often running businesses that are far bigger and of far more significance to the United Kingdom economy than that which I ran, sometimes find it incredibly difficult to get visas. That cannot help our trade with Tanzania or, indeed, with other countries.
Finally, there is the issue of family. The Commonwealth of nations is a family of nations, but it also contains family members of people in pretty much every constituency in the House. Surely it is important that we facilitate family visits that are done in the proper way—where it is clearly shown that these are not visits to seek long-term admission to the country, but family visits to see nephews, nieces, grandparents or grandchildren. That is all about humanity.
In those three areas—visits from charities and non-governmental organisations, visits for businesses and visits for family—it is surely possible to organise things in such a way that the cost is reasonable and that applications are dealt with in a matter of days or weeks, rather than the months we sometimes hear about.
I want to give a final example from my own experience to show what things can be like. My son was born in Nairobi about 25 years ago this month. We took the birth certificate and one or two other documents to the British high commission there, and we were issued with a British passport pretty much over the counter. A constituent, whose grandchild was born in Kenya last year, went through the same process, albeit with one or two complications. However, those complications should not have resulted in it taking several months for that child to be issued with a passport. Surely, things should have gone forwards after 25 years, not backwards, particularly with the access we now have to technology, but it seems that things were a lot easier 25 years ago.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for their contributions on this important subject, which is worthy of discussion with the Minister today.
The subject of the debate is the Commonwealth and visas, and it is important that we begin, as the hon. Member for Romford did, by recognising the crucial importance of the Commonwealth to the history of the United Kingdom and our close ties with countries across the Commonwealth.
Yesterday was Australia day. Today, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz; the second world war saw members of armed forces from across the Commonwealth join soldiers from the United Kingdom in the fight against fascism. Last year, we celebrated the start of the first world war. My grandfather, who was from the Lancashire area, fought his first battle in March 1915—almost 100 years ago—alongside thousands of Indian troops at Neuve Chapelle.
We have a long history with the Commonwealth, which we need to celebrate and recognise. As a member of the executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for five years now, I know how important that link is and how valued our parliamentary democracy is by the 53 nations of the Commonwealth across the world.
As the hon. Member for Romford said, what is important is not just historical ties, parliamentary democracy or the history of empire translated into a modern partnership. The Commonwealth is also a crucial economic driver, which we need to look outwards to. I have been to Australia on holiday, and I have been to New Zealand with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. What struck me on both occasions was that those countries are beginning to look towards the east, because that is where their market is. We need to look at how we can cement and develop our ties in a strong, effective way.
With a combined population of 2.3 billion people, the Commonwealth is a significant market, and there are significant transferable skills that we may want to work with and develop. As the hon. Gentleman also said, there is also the potential for export, tourism, business, family and education links, and we should look at how we can facilitate and build on those, while maintaining the integrity and strength of our borders. The hon. Member for Romford took the route I expected—of querying why we are cosying up to Europe while partly shutting the door on our historical Commonwealth links. My view of the European Union is slightly different from his. He can speak for himself, but I recognise that we are still part of a family of nations in Europe, and have historical ties to a range of those. Portugal is our oldest ally, for example, never mind the other countries that we have worked with.
I mentioned that, 100 years ago next month, my grandfather was fighting in the trenches of France with Indian soldiers, against Germans. He would be happy today that we are part of a family of nations in Europe as well as the Commonwealth. Relatives of mine who lost their relatives in the second world war, when the Commonwealth fought side by side with us, would also welcome our present economic partnership with Europe, in addition to the fact that we look out to the wider world. The hon. Member for Romford raised conflicts in talking about tightening our relations with Europe and relaxing them with the Commonwealth, but I do not share his view. I think there is potential in both areas.
The right hon. Gentleman made the point that we are in an economic partnership with the European Union, but we are not. We are in a political union, and that is different from a simple economic partnership. If we were in an economic partnership alone, we could do other things with the rest of the world, including the Commonwealth. The fact that we are in a political union and not the economic partnership that was the original intention—or certainly the British people’s original intention—prevents us from doing more with the Commonwealth. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that point?
We have a large trading partnership with Europe and political union through the European Parliament and other agencies in Europe, and I do not have a problem with that. We will disagree on this issue.
We also have the potential for economic growth in Europe. The biggest employer in my constituency is a company that makes the planes that will probably take the hon. Member for Romford to Australia: Airbus. They are made by Britain, France, Germany and Spain, and free movement means that French people work in north Wales, and north Walians work in France, making the biggest plane in the world and our biggest export. That is a positive. The second and third biggest employers in my constituency are the car manufacturers Toyota and Vauxhall, and they are probably in that area for access to the European market.
There are big issues to debate, but perhaps not today, because I want to focus on how to encourage more aspiration and partnership in the Commonwealth without throwing out a valuable partnership in Europe. I am interested in where the hon. Member for Romford thinks the 1.6 million Britons currently living in France, Germany, Spain and Italy would go if we suddenly closed our borders to people from those countries. I would welcome his thoughts on that—another day, perhaps.
In preparation for the debate I looked at the Commonwealth Exchange report, which is valuable for this Government and future Governments as a way of generating discussion and positive suggestions about how to attain the hon. Gentleman’s objectives. It suggests the restoration of the youth mobility visa, and considers the idea of Commonwealth concessions for tourist and business visas. We have heard the case for “Boris bilaterals”; I would not necessarily call them that, but there is potential to examine the idea in detail. The idea of a Commonwealth component to exceptional talent visas is worth considering; another important contribution would be to think about how to make it easier for business people throughout the Commonwealth to get business visas to come to this country.
The hon. Gentleman did not focus much on post-study work visas, but they are also important. Representations have been made to the Opposition about them from people who want to come to the United Kingdom to study and then to work here for a short period afterwards—particularly those who have been sponsored. All those things are worth exploring and reviewing.
As the potential Minister in 12 weeks’ time, I am particularly drawn to the idea of the youth mobility visa. It could be very positive. If young people between the ages of 18 and 30 come to the United Kingdom and contribute to the economy and to life here, they should, after leaving to become chief executives of companies throughout the world, always remember the importance of the UK in their development. That is very important. It is worth looking at the idea of annually reviewing the case for returning more Commonwealth nations to the approved youth mobility list, and expanding it. We also need to think about how, with the immigration department, to improve our use of technology to achieve greater transparency, so that the public can be better informed on the matters in question.
The Commonwealth Exchange report makes it clear that visitors from Nigeria, South Africa and India are more significant contributors to the UK economy than Chinese tourists, because of relatives, business and historical ties. We make efforts to attract visitors from China to the UK, and we should make significant efforts to make the visa application process simple for people from the historic Commonwealth countries.
I challenge the assertion that we could drop the visa price. I do not say it cannot be done, but I should be interested in a proper review of the costings by the hon. Member for Romford or the Home Office. We need to know whether that uncosted proposal would generate a sufficient increase in visitors to offset the loss of income. Costings are important, and the hon. Gentleman would expect no less of me if I were to make such a proposal.
The hon. Member for Stafford made a cogent point about making it clear that it is easy to get business visas. It is important that people who want to invest here, or in whose countries we invest, and who do business with us, should be able to get their visas approved speedily. It is worth thinking about extending the idea of a faster track for visas for regular visitors to the UK. Business demands better, and we should not turn the best and brightest away. We need to review the matter, as part of a range of measures that we have been considering.
I still think that the central problem faced by the hon. Member for Romford is the Prime Minister’s net migration target. The Prime Minister said at the last general election that he would get migration down to the tens of thousands; to try to achieve that—which he has failed to do—he has had to consider making it more difficult for people from outside the EU to come to the United Kingdom. The target has been missed. The Government have said it will not be met. We should consider calibrating it.
For example, under a future Labour Government I would not want students to be part of the net migration target. The hon. Gentleman made the strong point that students who come here, who have historically included those from Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, African countries and the wide range of Commonwealth countries, do so because we have some of the best universities in the world, and because they feel a historic affinity to the United Kingdom and want to be educated and to work here. The net migration target has caused great difficulties in that market, particularly in India and Pakistan but also elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
With some general tweaks in policy, even without the measures that the hon. Gentleman has proposed, we could and should make it easier for people to come to the United Kingdom to study and to learn. We need a general overhaul of a policy that is damaging the United Kingdom’s £18 billion-a-year university industry. That is particularly important because people who come to study in the United Kingdom do not simply learn about and enjoy our country and receive the best education; they will, at some point in their lives, be senior doctors, senior business people and world leaders who will do business with this country.
I happened to see in the Evening Standard that 200 Australian paramedics landed in London yesterday, having been recruited from Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane for the London Ambulance Service. That shows that, for reasons that are not only historical but practical, we must look outwards to the rest of the world and to the Commonwealth. I support measures to manage migration in the interests of the United Kingdom, and if that means Australian medics, Indian students or Tanzanian business people, that has to be good. The positive contribution that such people make is sometimes lost in the ever-present debate about immigration issues.
I do not think that anybody in this room would disagree with what the shadow Minister is saying. The crux of the matter is that Australians have to jump through lots of hoops to be allowed into the country, but those from EU countries do not jump through any hoops; they can just walk in. Surely he can see the unfairness in how the system has developed.
We have discarded opportunities with countries with which we have the most in common and the closest connections historically. Successive Governments have made it harder and harder for citizens of the Commonwealth, and particularly those of the realms, to come into this country. At the same time, anyone from any country that happens to join the EU can just walk in unrestricted. Surely he can see that that is an unfair situation and that we need to redress that balance.
That is one of the conundrums of membership of the European Union. It goes with the club. However, there are probably as many Australians in the United Kingdom now as there are Greeks. We are not talking about two sides of a coin; we can look outwards to the world while recognising our responsibilities in the European Union. That is a wider debate, and I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has focused us on a narrower issue.
I want to give the Minister the opportunity to contribute to the debate, so I will draw my remarks to a close. We must look seriously at possible solutions. I am attracted to some, and I am not attracted to others. In particular, I am not attracted to separate airport queues, as the hon. Member for Romford has proposed. The key message that I take from the debate—in the spirit of friendship, I hope that it is one that I can share with the hon. Gentleman—is that we should look at how to make it easier for businesses, students and tourists to come to the United Kingdom as part of managed migration. We need to know not only when they come, but when they go. We need to know that they are coming here for the reasons that they have given, and we need to encourage historic ties to ensure that we grow our economy for tourists, businesses and students.
I still think it is important—here the hon. Gentleman and I may part company—that we are part of the European Union and part of free movement within the European Union. Although we can apply certain restrictions on benefits such as child benefit and working tax credits, we still have free movement, which allows Britons to work and live in France and Germany, and allows Poles, Italians and others to work in Britain and elsewhere. That is part of the deal, but we should not close our eyes to the wider world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing a debate on this important matter, not least because it gives me a welcome opportunity to provide an update on the progress we have made.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) spoke about the links that we have with the Commonwealth, particularly through world war one. On Holocaust memorial day, we should remember the links we need to have across the world. If we understand each other’s way of life, we will see that we all want the same things and we will maintain peace. The Commonwealth and the EU both have an important role to play in that respect. I hate to do this to the right hon. Gentleman, whom I respect enormously, but I am sure that he meant to say “commemorate” rather than “celebrate” world war one. I am sure that the record will be corrected accordingly, because I know that he would not have wished to give a false impression.
I will endeavour to address all the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford has raised. In answer to his first question, which was a request for a meeting, I am happy to agree and I hope that it can be organised shortly.
There is much to be gained from promoting the trade, educational and strategic capabilities of the Commonwealth, and we are doing a lot of work on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) talked about the work that the Government have done to forge links with Commonwealth countries, particularly, in his case, India. I pay tribute to him for his excellent work in, for example, leading trade delegations to ensure that we maximise those opportunities. Businesses in all our constituencies benefit from trade with Europe and with Commonwealth partners. That is incredibly important and should not be forgotten.
I believe that our offer to students to stay in the UK after their studies is an excellent example of the work that we are doing. I will talk later about some of the things we do with students to ensure that Commonwealth students benefit. The building of links with the Commonwealth should never be to the detriment of the security of our borders. As the Minister with responsibility for modern slavery, I am particularly concerned about that. I will talk about how the Commonwealth can assist us in the important work of tackling modern slavery and human trafficking. I know that you have spent many years working on that area, Mr Bone, and I bow to your considerable expertise.
The UK is committed to the Commonwealth and to our relationships with all member states. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), who has responsibility for the Commonwealth, has championed the UK’s relationship with the organisation, which we value greatly as a symbol of democratic values and prosperity.
The Commonwealth is unique in having a young, vibrant population of more than 2 billion people, nearly half of whom, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) pointed out, are in India. It spans every inhabited continent. It is far more than simply a grouping of Governments, and we see potential in its future. That is why we continue to invest so much in the Commonwealth and we want to welcome people from right across it to the UK. There is much that we can do together to further the development of our countries, whether in education, health or trade, and we should take advantage of our shared values to enable us to do so. It is difficult to think of another organisation that brings together the representatives of 53 diverse sovereign states from each and every continent, and that gives each one, large or small, an equal voice in global affairs.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the attractiveness of membership of the Commonwealth. He is absolutely right, and it is incumbent on us all to send out the clear message that membership is a wonderful privilege and that we want to encourage countries to come forward and join with that diverse and exciting group of sovereign states.
Business and trade are areas in which the Commonwealth has great potential. Intra-Commonwealth trade in goods is already worth some £300 billion, built on our inherent advantages of a common language, shared legal principles and a commitment to inherent values and rights. Those advantages provide solid foundations for doing business, and they create a platform for trade, investment, development and, in turn, prosperity. That leads to what we call the Commonwealth effect, which studies suggest is worth between 20% and 50% in trade advantage.
The United Kingdom has a growing economy and a proud history of tolerance and acceptance of those who genuinely need our protection. It is, therefore, no surprise that we are an attractive destination. With that, however, we face particular challenges on all forms of immigration. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford introduced the debate by saying that immigration is a sensitive issue. He is right, but, despite those challenges, we are making significant progress on ensuring that our immigration system works in the national interest. He talked about a broken immigration system, but I do not believe that we have a broken immigration system today. We inherited a broken system of open-door immigration, and the right hon. Member for Delyn was a member of a Government who had an open immigration policy, but this Government have taken significant steps—I will address some of the steps we have taken—to address the important issues of EU and non-EU immigration.
To clarify, I spoke about a broken immigration system, but I commend what the Government are doing to change the shambles that we inherited five years ago. The system is broken in the sense that we have no power to control immigration from the EU. Whoever is in power after the election, no one can decide who comes in from the EU because we have given away that power. In that sense, the system is broken. We have failed to reduce immigration overall, which we promised to do, because we cannot control immigration from Europe; we can control only immigration from outside Europe. That is why I said the system is broken.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and he will forgive me if I indicated that I understood it differently. The Government have taken significant steps to address that matter, and if we form the next Government, as I fully intend—I apologise to the right hon. Member for Delyn, but I fully intend to be sitting in this seat in 12 weeks’ time—the excellent measures that the Prime Minister set out in his speech close to my constituency in Staffordshire just before Christmas will enable us to take even further steps to ensure that free movement within the EU comes with responsibilities and that we do not have free movement of criminals, which I particularly care about, or for welfare benefits. There is agreement on both sides of the House that access to welfare payments for non-UK nationals should not come without the responsibility of having contributed to the system.
The immigration system plays a strong part in supporting growth and meeting the needs of UK businesses. Migrant workers can fill skills gaps in our labour market and help to boost our economy. However, as the economic recovery continues, we are clear that employers should look first to recruit people who are already in the UK and are already UK nationals.
The Government are aware of the Commonwealth Exchange report “How to Solve a Problem like a Visa”—I commend the Commonwealth Exchange for its engaging title—and we are working with other Commonwealth countries to consider options to improve migration opportunities within the Commonwealth. Although the UK is happy to work with and consider ideas proposed by Commonwealth partners, the UK maintains that immigration and visa controls are a matter for the UK Government. It is important to remind the House—I know this has been mentioned already—that citizens of the majority of Commonwealth countries, 31 out of 53, do not require a visit visa to come to the UK.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford made the point that visas are an effective tool for the UK in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. The visit visa regime is an important tool in reducing the national security threat to the UK, allowing us to intervene in a number of ways before someone arrives in the country. We can prevent someone from coming to the UK by refusing a visa or, where appropriate, we can allow travel while setting up an operational response when someone in whom we are interested arrives in the UK. The information provided in the application process also allows us to identify links about which we would not otherwise have known. The backflow of data can be vital to new investigations, and the security and intelligence agencies require a biometric visa regime for all visa nationals.
Visas have a role to play in reducing crime. We can use the application to check whether someone is known to international partners, and we can check a range of databases to see whether someone has a criminal background here in the UK.
Finally, the process helps to tackle illegal immigration. The visa process enables us to check whether the applicant has a genuine reason for coming to the UK and enough money to support themselves. The use of biometrics enables us to lock an individual securely to their identity so that we know who we are dealing with.
As the Minister with responsibility for serious and organised crime, I know it is incredibly important that we keep in mind the security of British nationals with regard to foreign offenders. Commonwealth countries feature in the top 10 nationalities of foreign national offenders and, sadly, the top two nationalities are Commonwealth countries: Jamaica and Nigeria. We are working closely with those countries to ensure that we have upstream work to deal with foreign national offending so that it does not hit our streets, but I want to ensure that people in Romford, Stafford, Staffordshire Moorlands, Delyn, Tamworth and Wellingborough can walk the streets knowing that foreign national offenders are not coming to the UK without our knowledge. We should all recognise that that is incredibly important.
Economic factors are a big part of the decision on whether to impose a visa on a country, as they can be a big pull factor on illegal migration. Nevertheless, because of the traditional ties that we have with the Commonwealth, the UK is arguably more generous in that regard. Eighteen of the 31 Commonwealth countries with visa-free access to the UK, which is more than half, are classed as developing nations by the World Bank, which shows that there is occasionally a different approach to Commonwealth countries. The EU economies, in contrast, are more on the same economic level as the UK, with the majority being in the world’s 50 richest countries based on gross national income per capita per year. Economic criteria are one area of assessment for countries that want EU membership under the accession criteria.
I always think of immigration as being like the movement of air: it moves from high pressure to low. Wind is created when high pressure moves to fill a low-pressure gap. If we consider that high pressure for immigration is poverty, lack of opportunity and lack of education and that countries such as the UK represent low-pressure areas where there are opportunities, jobs and the potential to achieve wealth, it is understandable why people want to move from one to the other. Our job is to ensure that, when we look at the movement of people, we do not get to the point where, continuing the analogy, the low pressure in the UK becomes the high pressure that means we are overburdened—that is a strange analogy, but I hope it makes sense. I like to perceive immigration as being like the movement of air around the world.
Even within the EU, as the Prime Minister has made clear, disparities in income per head, as well as disparities in labour markets and work opportunities, create incentives for migration—let us remember that in the past four and a half years the UK has created more jobs than the rest of the EU put together. That is why the Government have started a debate within Europe on future accessions, such as linking freedom of movement to relative wealth and, of course, limiting the access of EU nationals to welfare and other services.
Visa regimes for some Commonwealth countries are an effective tool for the UK in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. The visa process enables us to check whether an applicant has a genuine reason for coming to the UK and enough money to support themselves. We take our duty to protect the public extremely seriously and, where foreign national offenders commit serious crimes in the UK, it is right that they are brought to justice and removed from the UK at the earliest opportunity. Since April 2010, we have removed more than 22,000 foreign national offenders. Where a Commonwealth national commits an offence in the UK, we will pursue deportation, unless they were resident in the UK before the commencement of the Immigration Act 1971. Visa regimes are an important part of the UK’s immigration system, which is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants, and tough on those who flout the rules.
The UK has a flexible policy for visitors that enables people to come for a range of purposes. Work is under way to streamline the policy further and consolidate the routes that will make the system even more accessible and provide greater flexibility. I acknowledge, however, that obtaining a visit visa for the UK is an inconvenience for some, which is why the UK has invested heavily in ensuring that applying for a UK visa is as easy as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford spoke about a specific visa case, although I cannot comment on the individual circumstances of that case. It is important that Members of Parliament always raise such cases because, no matter how good the system, there will always be the odd occasion when something does not quite work as it should. I am glad that the lady in question was able to visit the UK, and that my hon. Friend could help her in that regard.
We have upgraded our entire network of visa application centres to increase capacity. We have made our processes less bureaucratic, and we ensure fast turn-around times and offer appointments out of working hours. We have extended our three-to-five-day priority service, which is now available in more than 100 countries, and we have introduced a passport pass-back service in a number of countries so that customers can retain their passport while their UK visa application is being processed. A new super-priority 24-hour visa service, building on the popularity of the three-to-five-day service, has been introduced in India and China and will be extended to New York, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Manila, Istanbul, Bangkok and Pretoria by April 2015.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) mentioned the hub-and-spoke model for visa applications. We have more than 300 visa application points around the world, connected to a network of decision-making hubs. They are in similar places to the ones I just mentioned: Beijing, Manila, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, New Delhi, Riyadh, New York, Istanbul, Chennai, Bangkok, Mumbai and Pretoria.
The next generation of the outsourced visa project has delivered the next set of outsourcing contracts for the visa application process, including biometric enrolment, courier services and interviewing facilitation. The new contracts have allowed us to increase the number of application points globally, offer improved customer services including increased access to premium priority services and deliver efficiencies in the visa application process. To increase access to our visa services overseas, we have considered how best to support our operation and our customers, including by extending opening hours in some locations and trialling new “user pays” services in developing markets.
As for all such important new projects, will the Minister undertake to get a bit of customer feedback, particularly from Members of Parliament, to whom constituents often come as a matter of last resort when, for instance, a business partner, relative or non-governmental organisation worker whom they are supporting has spent weeks or even months trying unsuccessfully to get a visa? Will she consider collecting information from colleagues and seeing how the system can be improved? Clearly, if this is a new system, we will want to ensure that it works as efficiently as possible.
I assure my hon. Friend that we in the Home Office take seriously all comments and feedback from fellow Members of Parliament on all aspects of our work. He makes an important point about ensuring that we take seriously our colleagues’ feedback when their constituents experience new systems, because that feedback gives us on-the-ground evidence about what is happening and how it is working. I welcome comments from all Members about how the system affects their constituents and those constituents’ families. I have said that all the changes are working, and I hope that we have proved that they are. They provide greater flexibility and choice, and we know that they have been welcomed by many travellers and tour operators.
On longer stays, the UK views the Commonwealth as an important partner in helping the UK to grow. A number of routes are open to Commonwealth citizens who want to work in the UK. There are further provisions specifically for Commonwealth citizens, such as the UK ancestry route. My hon. Friend said that the Commonwealth was a family, and he is right. When I visited Pakistan last year, it was extraordinary how familiar it looked, given how Pakistani culture has become so commonplace within UK culture. The furnishings, the look and the things that we talked about—cricket, for instance—are common across the Commonwealth. In fact, during my visit to Islamabad, I do not think I met anybody who did not have family in Britain.
The UK ancestry route is for Commonwealth citizens with a UK-born grandparent who intend to work in the UK. Applicants do not need to come for a specific job and are not restricted to graduate-level occupations. They may be accompanied by dependants and can apply for indefinite leave to remain after five years’ residence. In 2013, a total of 4,100 UK ancestry visas were issued, including 1,600 to Australians, 500 to Canadians, 1,000 to New Zealanders and 870 to South Africans.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford mentioned the UK’s youth mobility scheme which, as he rightly said, operates in eight countries, three of which are Commonwealth countries: Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It enables young people to come to the UK for up to two years to experience UK culture. The UK is happy to engage in discussions with any country meeting the YMS eligibility criteria, which include presenting a low immigration risk to the UK, having satisfactory returns arrangements and offering a reciprocal arrangement for young UK nationals. My message to those countries is, “Please come forward and talk to us.” We are open to talking to countries that want to be part of the arrangement to see whether the eligibility requirements and reciprocal arrangements can be put in place to enable young people from the UK and Commonwealth countries to enjoy each other’s culture by living in each other’s countries.
The right hon. Member for Delyn wanted to remove students from the immigration target. That might seem like a quick fix for reducing immigration levels, but it is important that we understand how many students are here in Britain and ensure that they are leaving, as we will be able to do much more effectively when exit checks are introduced this spring, because we know that the student visa route was being exploited. This Government have clamped down on nearly 800 bogus colleges, slashed 45,000 visas from the further education route and cut family visas by nearly one third since we came to power. Our reforms have reduced net migration from outside the EU and, importantly, ensured that our higher and further education systems are not being abused. I caution the right hon. Gentleman against removing student numbers from the net migration figures. Although that might give a short-term boost to the figures, it would not enable the Government to manage the situation, thus leaving the potential for that important route to be abused, as has been the case in the past.
We have an excellent offer for students to stay in the UK after their studies. In April 2012 we closed the old tier 1 post-study work route, which gave two years’ unconditional access to the UK labour market, allowing many students to stay on in low-skilled work. We have replaced it with a more selective system. Graduates who get a graduate job that pays a graduate-level salary can stay in the UK, and there is no limit on their numbers. Also, we have created a scheme for graduate entrepreneurs and doubled the number of places on it to 2,000, as well as creating a new visa for graduates wishing to undertake a corporate internship or professional training related to their degree.
We are continuing to ensure that the scheme for the exceptionally talented attracts those who are already internationally recognised at the highest level as world leaders in their particular field, or who have already demonstrated exceptional promise. We wish to encourage more take-up of that route, and we are working with the endorsing bodies to do so, but the number of places available—1,000—is a limit, not a target. We wish to attract exceptional talent, wherever it comes from.
On 1 December 2014, the UK introduced new “transit without a visa” provisions that make it easier and clearer to transit through the UK. Commonwealth citizens who hold valid exemption documents, including visas for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, which is a close partner, although it is not in the Commonwealth, can transit through the UK without a visa, regardless of where they are travelling. The UK has also reduced the cost of the direct airside transit visa to £30, making it cheaper than the Schengen alternative for the citizens of the 21 Commonwealth countries who need to apply for one.
Also, after a successful pilot, on 17 November last year we launched our new registered traveller scheme. The scheme permits approved members who undergo advanced security checks access to our e-passport gates at Heathrow and Gatwick, or the option to use the EEA queue at Heathrow or a special RT lane at Gatwick, expediting their clearance through the border. The scheme is open only to a select number of countries but, crucially, travellers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand who are aged 18 or over, meet the criteria for the scheme and travel to the UK at least four times a year are eligible to apply. Applicants pay an average membership fee of £50, and since the scheme’s formal launch in November, more than 5,000 regular travellers, almost a quarter of whom come from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have been approved to join it. Keeping the UK’s borders secure is our priority but, at the same time, we want to welcome legitimate visitors and trade that contribute to the UK economy and to show that we value our links with other countries. Using the latest technology helps us to do both, and the scheme is proving popular with regular travellers.
My hon. Friends the Members for North West Norfolk and for Romford talked about separate entry as a possibility for Commonwealth citizens, or for citizens of those Commonwealth realm countries for which Her Majesty the Queen is Head of State. Any policy or operational decision to create an additional line for Commonwealth nationals at ports must be taken with due regard to the wider operational impact—the likelihood of placing an additional burden on port operators—and the impact on other passengers. That is key to ensuring that any benefits to a limited number of individuals are not outweighed by a negative impact on border security operations more generally by constraining UK Border Force’s flexibility to respond dynamically to fluctuations in passenger flow.
Having visited UK Border Force and seen its work, I can say that there is very careful management of the lines at the borders. We have a registered traveller scheme that enables people who have gone through pre-clearance to go through e-gates, which is the quickest and easiest way to access the UK, and such people include those from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, having a separate route for those travellers from Commonwealth countries who do not have registered traveller status would, in many cases, hamper UK Border Force’s ability to deal with fluctuations in arrival flows.
Let me give an example of that. If a flight arrives from Jamaica, it would be highly likely that many of its passengers will be UK nationals who have visited Jamaica, but many other passengers would be Jamaican nationals. Due to the prevalence of foreign national offenders from Jamaica, we need to check those people and ensure that they go through the proper immigration and border gates, as would be the case for people coming from places such as Albania, or perhaps south-east Asia. We want to ensure that those travellers have the right security checks at the border. It would create a problem if we had a separate Commonwealth gate when all the passengers being dealt with had arrived from Commonwealth countries, meaning that there was only a limited number of gates through which those passengers could pass although there were many other gates available for passengers whose flights had not yet arrived.
To give UK Border Force the flexibility it needs, if it felt that it would be appropriate to have specific gates in operation to help its staff, that would be entirely down to the Border Force itself. However, we should not try to restrict it, given how its staff have to manage flows of arriving passengers. It does not want to keep people waiting for longer than the 40-minute target that we have set.
The Minister seems to be saying that people from countries in which the Queen is Head of State—the realms—must go through security checks that are perhaps more stringent than those for an EU citizen. I find that strange, because Australia, New Zealand, and Jamaica, which she mentioned, are countries that have fought for King, Queen and country and stood behind us. They have the Queen as their Head of State, yet we treat people from those countries differently from individuals from European countries with which we have had this new partnership for only a few years—since they joined the EU. I understand why people in the Commonwealth countries feel that we have let them down badly over this issue. Surely this should be about not just operational convenience, but our cousins throughout the world with whom we have so much in common and to whom we owe so much.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, but perhaps I can clarify the situation. This is about having information and knowledge about people who come into the UK to ensure that they will not hurt our citizens. Within the EU, there are information exchanges for criminal records, such as the European criminal records information system, and data are available about criminals’ past activities. As the Minister with responsibility for serious and organised crime, I am determined that we have that same level of information exchange with other countries. Actually, I would like that same level of information exchange across the world.
I have attended meetings with Caribbean Community countries in which I have encouraged them to adopt the kind of criminal information exchange that we have in the EU. If they had that, we could start to have some certainty about how we deal with people travelling to the UK from those countries because we would then have any relevant information about criminals’ past activities.
This process is about the practicalities of how we ensure that people coming into this country are not coming here to do us harm, but so long as we do not have such information about travellers from certain countries—I do not wish to single out Jamaica, but it is the largest source country for foreign national offenders—we must put the security of the British people before anything else. However, if countries meet the eligibility criteria for the registered traveller scheme, travellers from those countries are welcome to join that scheme, as travellers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada have already done, which means that they can access the e-gates that are available to people from members of the European economic area.
Having seen the e-gates in action, I know that they are a good tool for finding any EEA national who is marked as being wanted, a criminal and so on, meaning that UK Border Force can stop them at the border and go through the necessary checks. We are stopping many EEA nationals who try to come through the border via e-gates because those e-gates have great technology that allows digital information to be used to find criminals.
The Minister is absolutely right that the security of the British people has to come first and that we need to know who is coming into our country. If people have a propensity to commit crimes, of course we need to take action to prevent them from coming in. However, does she understand that if someone is a New Zealander, a Jamaican, or from another one of these countries with such close links with the UK, the system might come across as slightly offensive because it suggests that we are worried about criminals coming from in Canada, and that while we can have arrangements with Slovakia and Portugal, we cannot have those same arrangements with New Zealand, Canada and the Bahamas, for example? Surely we can find a way to deal with this situation. She seems to be saying that she is not against the idea in principle, but that it is just a question of getting the practicalities right. Is that the case?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I do not want to dwell on this issue for too long, because we are running out of time and I would like to cover modern slavery, but I reiterate that an enhanced criminal information exchange is available to us with regard to EU nationals, and that provides information over and above that which we have about non-EU nationals. I want to reach a point at which we have such exchange of criminal information across the board, because that would be a very good thing to keep all of us safe. While we do not have that, however, I am not prepared to put the security of the British people at risk by opening our borders in a way that might create a problem. I hope that he understands that point.
Let me conclude by saying something about the work that we are doing on modern slavery, which we all agree is an international problem. We are committed to working with other countries to prevent individuals from being exploited. Commonwealth countries are often source countries for modern slavery, so we are committed to working with them to tackle the problem. The modern slavery strategy, which was published on 29 November, commits us to raising the profile of modern slavery through the institutions of the Commonwealth and the EU, and to working with partner Governments to implement positive changes in law and practices. It also commits us to identify annually between 20 and 25 priority countries, which will include a number of Commonwealth countries.
Through our links with the Commonwealth and civic organisations such as Rotary, we are trying to ensure that we have on-the-ground information so that we can tackle this issue upstream, so that people are not trafficked and do not become victims of slavery in the UK, and so that we can deal with slavery on the ground. The UK Government are committed to stamping out that abhorrent crime by building on our strong track record in supporting victims and fighting perpetrators. Promoting links with the Commonwealth should not be to the detriment of maintaining the security of our borders, which is what allows us to tackle problems such as modern slavery.
Let me reiterate our commitment to the Commonwealth. We want to welcome citizens from across the Commonwealth to the UK. Britain is open for business. We welcome legitimate students, tourists, business people and others who want to come to this country to contribute. The changes that we have put in place ensure that Britain remains an attractive destination while maintaining the security of our borders. Britain is a place that people want to visit so that they can work hard, study, and enjoy our historic buildings and beautiful countryside.