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House of Commons Hansard
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Visitor Visas: Sub-Saharan Africa
08 June 2016
Volume 611

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered visas for visitors from sub-Saharan Africa.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The word “visa” for a document that permits a visitor entry to or exit from a foreign country is believed to be derived from the Latin “charta visa”, meaning a verified paper or a paper that has been seen. Sadly, for too many people from sub-Saharan Africa, UK visitor visas are documents that are not seen, because of the massive logistical barriers that stand in the way of applying for them and the opaque and often apparently arbitrary decision-making process for their granting.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise those concerns directly with the Minister, and I am grateful to him for making time to meet me and a representative from the Scotland Malawi Partnership yesterday to discuss some of them in advance. The issues will not be new to him or his Department, because they have been raised repeatedly in recent years both by MPs and in the House of Lords through questions and debates and through the channels of the all-party parliamentary group on Africa, of which I am secretary. However, I believe that this is the first occasion since the 2015 election on which time has been made available for a debate on the issue. The timing is opportune, because despite parliamentarians’ best efforts in recent years, it seems that little has been done to resolve the many challenges facing visa applicants in sub-Saharan Africa, and reports of major frustrations and disappointments with the system appear to be on the increase.

The debate is about visas for visitors from sub-Saharan Africa, but I want to look particularly at experiences in Malawi, as that is the country with which I have the most familiarity. The Scotland Malawi Partnership has helpfully provided a detailed briefing. I declare something of an interest: until the election, I worked for the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which is a member of the Scotland Malawi Partnership, and was vice-chair of the Network of International Development Organisations in Scotland, which shares several members with the SMP.

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I understand that Malawians are expected to pay for visas to visit the UK by credit card, which very few of them have. Does my hon. Friend agree that alternative payment methods should be accepted so that Malawians do not face an often insurmountable barrier?

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Yes, exactly. I will touch on some of those issues, and I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, who represents Blantyre in Scotland, which was the hometown of David Livingstone and is commemorated in Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi. The situation she describes is a problem not just in Malawi. The all-party group on Africa’s experience is that the situation in Malawi is symptomatic of challenges experienced across the region. It is a region where, as my hon. Friend alluded to, very small proportions of the population have access to electricity, let alone the internet, yet prospective visitors to the UK are expected to apply online for a visa. It is a region where public transport as we know it in the UK is practically non-existent, yet people are sometimes required to travel hundreds of miles to a visa application centre—sometimes on numerous occasions to progress the same application. It is a region where trade is mostly conducted in cash, yet payment for a visa can only be made online by credit card.

Those points on their own should be enough to give the Government pause for thought and cause them to ask whether their visa application system is genuinely fit for purpose in the region. Those are often only the first hurdles that applicants face, and they are sometimes high enough to prevent an application from being made in the first place. The Scotland Malawi Partnership reports that many of its member organisations—those are often churches, schools or small community groups—that consider the possibility of bringing partners to Scotland and the UK for a visit simply give up at their first browse of the visa application requirements. I understand from the SMP that NHS Lothian, NHS Tayside, Kingussie High School and Aberdeen presbytery have all recently had to cancel visits because of visa complications. They all have their own powerful stories to tell, which I am sure we could make known to the Minister.

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This weekend, my wife is holding a fundraiser in Stafford, the aim of which is to provide funds for medical students at the Kilimanjaro Christian medical centre. Two medical students from Tanzania were invited on our behalf some time ago, but they are not able to come, precisely because of the bureaucratic hurdles. All that they wanted to do was attend, visit, give their stories and go back.

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I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing work on international development. I suspect that many local charities that want to bring visitors over encounter exactly those hurdles.

Before coming back to the challenges of the process and the concerns about it, I want to deal briefly with why it is important that people from countries such as Malawi should be allowed to visit the UK. I stress that the debate is about visitor visas. The debate on immigration, asylum and settlement is aired often enough in this Chamber and elsewhere. However, the issues are perhaps connected, because there is a strong sense among those who go through the visa application process that the system is based above all on a concern that people who arrive on a visitor visa may abscond or refuse to return to their country of origin.

I plan to table written questions after the debate to establish what figures the Government hold on the rate of absconding or non-returning, especially among holders of short-term sponsored visitor visas, to see whether that concern is real or imagined. There will undoubtedly be individual chancers who make it to the UK on visitor visas and never quite make it home, although frankly, in my time in Malawi I met plenty of UK and European travellers who ended up on the beach at Lake Malawi and never quite made it home, because they were quite happy to spend their days in the travel lodges or set up their own. There is reciprocity there, but on the whole, people who come here for a short time—especially those who are sponsored or invited by charities and community organisations—come for a specific purpose and are supported and accompanied throughout their visit, often from the moment they arrive at the airport to the moment they are dropped off there at the end.

Visits for school or cultural exchanges, or for speaking or campaigning tours, are designed to have a lasting impact beyond the visitor’s short presence. A school exchange might promote better global citizenship among young people or provide an invaluable training opportunity for teachers from both countries. Visiting artists or musicians might help to inspire new kinds of creativity and collaboration or provide some social focus for the legitimately established diaspora community here in the UK.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I would simply like to put it on record, as a member of the International Development Committee, that it has been invaluable to be able to hear what witnesses have to say, see them, look into their eyes and ask questions prior to making important recommendations and decisions that may affect many people. Although immigration control is important, we have to apply care and common sense in such situations.

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I agree entirely with the hon. Lady, and I was going to make exactly that point. A speaking tour that gives witness to the impacts of poverty or the success of projects that help to overcome poverty may help to change Government policy and improve the lives of even more people. Ironically, speakers on such a tour might find themselves running up against the Government’s anti-advocacy clause, but that is perhaps a debate for another day. It is not just ironic but a key concern of mine that visas are denied to, or barriers are put in the way of, visitors who could help to transform our understanding of poverty in global campaigns against injustice. Last year my former organisation, SCIAF, wanted to bring visitors over from Malawi to help to promote its Lent fundraising and awareness campaign—a campaign supported by the Department for International Development’s UK Aid Match scheme—but the first visa application was denied.

One of the first events that I helped to facilitate in Parliament after the election was a major seminar organised by ActionAid to launch its “Fearless” campaign against violence against women. The UK Government have repeatedly and rightly spoken out against all forms of violence and discrimination against women, yet a visa was denied—not once but twice—to Tiwonge Gondwe, a women’s rights campaigner from Rumphi district in Malawi. In response, she said:

“Women in Malawi face violence every day. I experienced violence but now I work as a volunteer to campaign for women and to help realise my children’s rights. I wanted to come to the UK to build international support for women’s rights, but because I’m a volunteer I was told I did not earn enough money. That does not make sense.”

In such situations, disappointment and frustration is felt by not just the individuals but the sponsoring organisations. Long-established, credible organisations, often with worldwide presence and public support, can feel that judgment is being passed on their bona fides when visa applications that they support are rejected. I ask the Minister to consider as a result of the debate what further or different consideration can be given to visa applications that are supported or sponsored by established, credible and suitably registered UK charities, businesses or other institutions.

Visa barriers or refusals not only damage the relationship between the individual and the sponsoring organisation but send a signal about the kind of welcome this country and the Government want to offer. That signal often contradicts the message that the UK is open for business, and that we welcome tourists and visitors who can contribute to our economy, culture and society. They can also send a message that one arm of Government does not know what the other arm is doing, and they undermine the civil society links that the UN has identified as crucial to the achievement of the sustainable development goals. Indeed, I understand from the Scotland Malawi Partnership that there have recently been instances when even applications sponsored by the British Council have run into difficulties.

I will come back to some of the practical difficulties. The Minister yesterday received a copy of the Scotland Malawi Partnership briefing on the issue, which outlines 10 areas of concern about the visa application process. I will not go through all of them, but I will highlight a couple of key themes. A major one is the lack of clarity about how to apply and what to include, with the online application system being a particular barrier. I understand that when SMP representatives visited the visa application centre in Lilongwe earlier this year, they were told that the centre was not allowed to give information or advice about what to include in an application, but only to encourage applicants to look online.

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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I am a wee bit short of time, I am afraid, and I have a funny feeling there is a Division in the House.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

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I wanted to come on to the practical difficulties that are being faced by people applying for visas from sub-Saharan African countries. The first, as I said, is the lack of clarity about how to apply and what to include, and the particular barriers faced by people trying to apply online. The advice to the Scotland Malawi Partnership was to look online to see the guidance for filling in an application. When its representatives asked whether they could have a look online, the staff at the visa application centre said, “Well, we’re sorry, but you can’t, because our internet connection has gone down.” If the visa application centre cannot get a reliable internet connection, how is an applicant who might live many hundreds of miles away in a rural area supposed to get online?

The Government regularly report approval rates of between 80% and 85% for visa applications. As I touched on earlier, I doubt that takes into account applications that are started but never completed due to the challenges and complexity of the system, but I suspect that it does include applications that are granted very close to, or on, the day of planned travel. Those visas are then impossible to use or can be used only after the costly rearrangement of plans.

The Government might respond by saying that people should not book travel until a visa is granted, but first, that stands in contrast to the Government’s claim that there is a smooth, reliable turnaround system. Secondly, the effect of that would be either very costly last-minute purchases of flights or incredibly long lead-in times for what are often voluntary or fast-moving organisations trying to arrange a visitor’s programme here in the UK. We heard an example of charities’ efforts from the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) earlier.

Perhaps the biggest concern expressed by stakeholders, which has also been reflected in the work of the Africa all-party group, is the outsourcing of the visa processing function to private companies. With many of the Government’s procurement contracts, it appears that they go to the lowest bidder rather than to who can offer the best service. The hub-and-spoke model of local application centres and regional decision making hubs exacerbates that concern. Indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the visa application process for a prospective visitor who lives in, say, Pretoria—in the same city as the visa processing centre and in a country much higher up the UN development index—is undoubtedly vastly different from that of someone such as Tiwonge Gondwe in Malawi, who lives 500 miles from her capital city and the visa application centre.

Of course, the process is happening in countries where the UK has a well established network of embassies, consulates and high commissions. It is unclear why having an additional network of visa applications centres represents best value for money. I hear reports that when visas are delayed or refused, appeals to the high commission can have little or no impact. Will the Minister confirm whether staff at the high commission, or the high commissioner, have the authority to issue or authorise visas in urgent or emergency cases?

It may be increasingly difficult for visitors from sub-Saharan Africa to obtain visas for the UK, but I was pleased to hear recently that a licence had been granted for the import of one of Malawi’s other famous products: Malawi gin. I hope that when it comes to organising formal launch events for the product in the UK, it will be possible for not only the product, but the people who make it, to arrive here safely. I will endeavour to secure a sample for the Minister; perhaps while he is enjoying an MGT—a Malawi gin and tonic—as many of us who have been expats in Malawi have, he can reflect on some of the points I have raised.

For clarity, what steps is the Minister taking to keep the efficiency and effectiveness of the visa application process under review? Is he prepared to receive evidence and case studies from the Scotland Malawi Partnership and others demonstrating their concerns and the patterns of failure in the system, and is he prepared to act on them? What reassurance can he give us about the consideration that he can give to visa applications that are sponsored and funded by credible UK-based organisations, such as charities, schools, churches, universities and businesses? What discussion is he prepared to have with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the role that high commissions, embassies and consulates can play in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the process?

I am grateful to the Minister for his willingness to engage on this issue. He has answered questions in the House, he has attended meetings with the all-party group, he gave up time to meet me yesterday and he is responding to the debate today. I hope that we can continue the dialogue and see some resolutions to the concerns. I hope that he will take my comments in the constructive spirit in which they are intended, and that through such dialogue and partnership we can continue to strengthen the links between Scotland, the UK, Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Zikomo kwambiri.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate, and I certainly underline to him a commitment to continue to engage. The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would be prepared to consider further representations on individual parables, or examples from the discussions that he and I have had with representatives of the Scotland Malawi Partnership. I will certainly reflect on those. It may be appropriate for me to write to him on the representations that he has made to me separately, on further consideration of some of the facts that have been asserted and some of the experiences that have been described. I certainly give him that clear commitment at the outset.

I recognise that the UK is a major donor to Africa. Scotland obviously has very strong ties to Africa and to Malawi in particular through the Scotland Malawi Partnership, which has been rightly referenced during this debate. That is something to celebrate and I recognise the continued focus to which the hon. Gentleman and other Members will wish to draw attention.

I underline that the UK is welcoming record numbers of visitors. In the year to June 2015, 9 million non-European economic area visitors came to the UK—an increase of 0.5 million when compared with the previous year. We also issued 1.9 million visit visas in the year to March 2016—an increase of 2% when compared with the previous year.

Let me respond to some of the themes that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. Visas are an effective tool for the UK in helping to reduce illegal migration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. They are an important part of the UK’s immigration system, which is fair to legitimate migrants and tough on those who flout the rules. However, I know that, for some, obtaining a visit visa for the UK can seem to be an inconvenience or to put up hurdles or obstacles. That is why the UK has invested heavily to ensure that applying for a UK visa is as straightforward as we can make it. We have upgraded our entire network of visa application centres to increase capacity. We have made our processes less bureaucratic, we ensure fast turnaround times and we offer appointments out of working hours. We have extended our five to seven-day priority service, which is now in nearly 200 countries, including 23 locations in Africa. We have also taken steps such as introducing a passport pass-back service in some locations so that customers can retain their passport while their UK visa application is being processed.

Our super-priority 24-hour visa service is building on the popularity of the five to seven-day service. It has been introduced in Pretoria and Johannesburg in South Africa and we are rolling it out to Nigeria. We judge that all those changes are working to provide greater flexibility and choice. We know that they have been welcomed by many travellers and tour operators. Ninety-nine per cent. of all visit visas are processed globally within the customer service standard of 15 days, with 85% of people who applied for a visa in the year to March 2016 being successful.

Visas, of course, play an important part in facilitating travel to the UK to maintain connections between Africa and the UK, for all the reasons highlighted by the hon. Gentleman, including debate and exchange. They underpin so many of the factors to which he drew attention. In Africa, most decisions are made significantly faster than the 15-day standard; for example, the average is 5.1 days in South Africa, 8.1 days in Cameroon and 7.9 days in Malawi.

I understand that the hon Gentleman is concerned that visas for some anti-poverty campaigners to come to the UK to speak of their experiences, including from sub-Saharan Africa, have been refused. I cannot comment on individual cases, but visitors must satisfy Home Office rules and requirements. I will dwell on this a little because I appreciate that that was one of the central points of his contribution. Some people have suggested that individuals with modest economic circumstances are precluded from being granted a visa, even if a genuine sponsor in the UK is meeting the cost of the visit. I will say in straightforward terms that all visa applications from anywhere in the world are considered on their individual merits against the immigration rules. Applicants should provide evidence to show that they meet those requirements. Visitors to the UK must show that they can be adequately accommodated and supported during their stay and can meet the cost of their onward journey. That is important to ensure that only genuine visitors come to our country and to protect our system.

There is flexibility within the rules for visitors to be maintained and accommodated by friends or relatives and also now for a professional organisation to do so. Entry clearance officers will take into account all information provided by applicants and their sponsors when making decisions on visa applications. They can make inquiries directly with sponsors where necessary. I underline the importance of providing all relevant information and details when making an application because entry clearance officers in essence have to make that decision based on the evidence provided to them. If there is some way to work with parliamentarians to underline such requirements and the information that would be looked at positively—again, we have to consider each application on its merits—that is a dialogue and a discussion I am prepared to continue with not just the hon. Gentleman but others from all-party parliamentary groups and Select Committees. Let us see whether we can help to provide further information. It is certainly not our intention to try to trip people up. It is about looking at these matters appropriately and fairly.

In the year to March 2016, 75% of all applications from sub-Saharan African nationals were granted. UK Visas and Immigration for the Africa region, which is responsible for delivering visa services across sub-Saharan Africa, offers, we believe, good customer service, with a modern and efficient visa service that received customer service excellence accreditation in both 2015 and 2016. All applicants now apply and pay online, which provides a streamlined process, and they can make appointments to submit their documents and biometrics at one of our visa application centres, of which there are 30 in sub-Saharan Africa.

I will dwell a little on some of the cost issues. Again, we believe that the UK visa offer is competitive. It costs £87, is valid for six months and is multiple entry. A Schengen short-stay visa costs around £60, is valid for three months and is single entry. We work hard to ensure that our hub-and-spoke model helps to ensure that visa applications are processed consistently. Consistency in decision making is important and was one of the factors that led us to the hub network. That is important to deliver high standards across the network. It does not represent a deterioration of service for those applicants whose documents are sent to UKVI from the country in which they reside.

I understand the difficulties for applicants in countries without application points and we do our best to mitigate disruption, including through an on-demand mobile application service. We have user pay visa application centres in nine countries in Africa where there are low volumes of applications. We seek to strike a balance in having a network of visa application centres that make things more accessible, particularly when low volumes might not support a full visa service. I know that, for example, the number of visas issued in Malawi was around 1,600 last year and remained fairly stable between 2015 and quarter one of 2016. It is about how to have a sustainable network that is able to meet the needs and provide some accessibility in that way.

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I am grateful for the Minister’s constructive tone, but 1,600 applications in Malawi is two or three a day, so why not provide an in-house service within the consular system? Given that the system is remote and online, is there any scope for sponsoring organisations to help with applications remotely from the UK, where we have better internet connections?

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On the relationship between UK Visas and Immigration and high commissioners, only decision makers who are entry clearance staff can issue visas. However, we have established arrangements for handling urgent compassionate cases when there are logistical barriers to issuing a visa in time for travel. UKVI works closely with colleagues from other Departments to ensure that our visa service in a given country is appropriate to the local situation and that UK interests in a particular country are given appropriate weight. We obviously have an ongoing dialogue with colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the visa service.

How payment is made was a factor that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) highlighted. When we look at global visa services worldwide—not just from the UK, but from Schengen countries and others—they are moving to digital by default. There are issues of credit card availability for some, so it is open to others to provide their credit card to facilitate payment. It does not have to be made by the individual, but we continue to focus on how to deliver digital by default and ensure that that is understood and recognised.

I want to respond to some of the other points that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. As I said, I am always content to receive representations about the Home Office’s policies and processes and in that spirit I confirm that I am happy to receive evidence and case studies from the Scotland Malawi Partnership. In the context of some of the issues in relation to Malawi, I recognise and appreciate the close connections there. We believe we have a very good visa service in Malawi. The visa application centre in Lilongwe is open five days a week and applicants can provide their biometrics. Again, on the issue of biometrics, we have that network of visa application centres. That is becoming the default for most countries in providing visa services, and we offer the priority visa service that I highlighted, with a five-to-seven day turnaround time for applicants. On customer service standards in Malawi, 97% of Malawian visitor visa applications, including for business visitors, were resolved in line with the 15-day service standard in 2015. There was an average processing time of just 7.9 days for all non-settlement visa applications.

We are keen that the UK should continue to attract business and leisure travellers, who will help our economy to grow further, so in April 2015 we simplified the immigration system for people visiting the UK by streamlining the routes, reducing their number from 15 to four, and by creating more flexibility for visitors to do a wider range of activities. For instance, a visitor with a standard visit visa is allowed to come to the UK for a holiday, take part in a sporting event, attend meetings and visit family, instead of having to apply for separate visas for each of those relevant requirements. That has been favourably received, and certainly we continue to reflect on the visa offering, in terms of both policy and the customer service standards that are adhered to.

I very much welcome the opportunity of this debate and the manner in which the hon. Member for Glasgow North approached it, and I very much appreciated the meeting that we held with the Scotland Malawi Partnership. I look forward to continuing the discussion and certainly I will respond to him formally in relation to a number of the more detailed examples and points that he set out. I hope that that may provide a further opportunity to underline our commitment to those standards and to ensuring that the UK sends a very clear message that it is open for business and open for attracting visitors to come to this country and enjoy everything that we have to offer.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered visas for visitors from sub-Saharan Africa.