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Electronic Travel Authorisation: Northern Ireland

Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2023

I will call Stephen Farry to move the motion, and then I will call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Electronic Travel Authorisation and Northern Ireland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I thank the Minister for his attendance.

This debate is not about the concept or the introduction of the electronic travel authorisation itself, though I have my concerns in that regard. Rather, the debate covers the implications for the movement of residents and tourists on the island of Ireland, and especially the implications for Northern Ireland. Significant concerns have been expressed by the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance, Tourism NI, Tourism Ireland, the Committee on the Administration of Justice and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland. The issue has also been raised with the Government by the Irish Government and in the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament. The key, overarching point is that a one-size-fits-all approach to the world does not work when it comes to the island of Ireland.

Of course, we have the common travel area, which has been in place since the 1920s. By convention, it allows free movement and residency for British and Irish citizens, with associated rights and privileges. Although the UK and Ireland have always had their own immigration rules and systems for other nationalities, until recently there has been a relatively free flow of other residents and tourists from non-visa jurisdictions across the island. I welcome the exemption to the ETA requirements for non-visa third-country permanent residents in the Republic of Ireland, which I and others had been calling for, but there is a lack of clarity on the evidence requirements for legal residents of Ireland. The UK Government had committed to publish guidance on which documents would be accepted as proof of legal residence, but I do not think that has been published yet. Given the nature of land crossings, it is essential that a pragmatic approach is taken, as many people will drive over the border without ID documents.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this important and pragmatic debate on the practicalities of the issue. Does he agree that, for the hospitality industry, the ability of residents of Northern Ireland to travel freely to the Republic for a night away, and the ability of the residents of the Republic to avail themselves of the world-class facilities in Northern Ireland—especially in Strangford, where the beauty and the attractions are very obvious—must be as seamless as someone coming over on a boat from Scotland or hopping on a flight from Liverpool for a boys’ weekend away?

I thank my colleague from Northern Ireland, who represents the constituency neighbouring mine. I agree with everything the hon. Member said, with a minor exception: I would put North Down marginally ahead of Strangford, obviously. Yes, the ETA has to work in both directions.

It is essential that immigration enforcement throughout the UK is familiar with the exemption and the documents that can be accepted, as it applies to travel within the entire common travel area. We need to know what happens if someone who is exempt from an ETA is encountered and has no documents proving their legal residence in Ireland, as this will happen from time to time. Will they be given an opportunity to return to Ireland or to provide the documents subsequently, or will they face criminal prosecution and immigration detention?

Overall, the exemption illustrates that it is possible for the Government to be pragmatic in recognising the particular circumstances in Ireland and the reality of the thousands of daily journeys by non-UK or non-Irish citizens: to shop, for leisure, for medical appointments, for education, and in some cases to work. The focal point for flexibility is now largely centred around tourism, although there is considerable disappointment in the tourism sector that similar flexibilities were not announced at the same time as they were for residents in Ireland.

It is important to note two key, overarching factors. First, under the Good Friday agreement, Ireland is marketed internationally as a single destination. The success of tourism on the island is one of the standard examples of successful north-south co-operation. Secondly, most visitors to the island of Ireland, including those who travel onwards to Northern Ireland, enter through airports and seaports in the south. The overwhelming majority of international flights to the island come via Dublin, especially from the lucrative North American market. Overall, 70% of international visitors to Northern Ireland start in the Republic of Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. He will recall the engagement that we had collectively, as Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland, with the Minister at the turn of the year. One point that we made to him was about the practical outworkings of a lack of enforcement against the legal requirement that tour operators and insurance companies would have for their visitors to comply with the law. We had a discussion about an exemption for such individuals, so that they could visit Northern Ireland and avail themselves of all of our beauty and our offering without this legal impediment, which would render them without insurance cover or put tour operators in an invidious position. Does he share my disappointment that we thought we had reached a positive conclusion with the Home Office, but that has not been borne out?

The hon. Member is right to highlight the situation whereby enforcement and practice may be very light or non-existent but none the less the legal jeopardy continues. That is the nub of the problem that will complicate matters for the tourism sector, particularly when it comes to things such as insurance cover. Again, he reflects on our general disappointment, because there was a time when we felt that a pragmatic outcome for tourism was very close to getting over the line—and, indeed, the Minister kindly facilitated some discussions between his officials and representatives of the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance.

Overall, there are three types of negative impacts of the ETA on tourism. The first is the bureaucracy, which could serve as a deterrent to visitors coming to Northern Ireland; they may perceive it to be too much hassle and not worth the bother of coming north, and instead choose to do other things in the Republic of Ireland. The Government may well argue that the relative cost is low, highlight the two-year duration of the ETA and stress that it will be relatively easy to apply, but it is worth highlighting a few features of Northern Ireland entry in contrast to other potential entry points. Unlike with the rest of the UK, visitors will be entering via a land border rather than an air or seaport, so there is not the failsafe of drawing attention to the ETA requirement as visitors enter the UK at those other locations. Visitors to Ireland may have the need for an ETA highlighted to them within wider marketing of the island, but that may not necessarily always filter through.

There will also be practical difficulties in highlighting the need for an ETA at the time of booking flights because many tourists will be arriving formally into Irish airports, where there is no need for an ETA, so it would be a case of trying to second guess whether people were going to make further journeys into Northern Ireland. Indeed, there is a clear pattern of tourists making spontaneous decisions to come to Northern Ireland, including for day trips—after all, Northern Ireland is barely an hour’s travel time from Dublin—and feedback from coach operators confirms that much of their business reflects last-minute bookings. Any marketing campaign at Dublin airport will obviously require the co-operation of Irish authorities, which would be difficult at the best of times, never mind in the politically charged context of today. The biometric aspect may also become a barrier to some with limited ICT literacy—for example, some older people, especially whenever they are seeking to make spontaneous journeys.

The second area of impact is the legal jeopardy for tourists who travel to or through Northern Ireland without an ETA. Although there will be no routine immigration control on the Irish land border, those who enter Northern Ireland will nevertheless still legally be required to possess a valid ETA. Problems may arise if someone has an accident or needs medical assistance or otherwise has to interact with the UK state, and they do not have an ETA and the associated legal right to be in the UK. That could lead to insurance policies becoming invalid. Failure to possess an ETA could open someone to a criminal offence and potentially—under the Illegal Migration Bill—to deportation.

At the same time, the absence of routine immigration controls undermines the Government’s main justification for the ETA—knowing or monitoring who is entering the UK—so we could end up placing legitimate visitors in legal uncertainty without any real benefit to the state from the ETA. There is a potential headache and deterrent to those running coach tours and other forms of transport, especially if there is a danger that operators become liable for any passengers they carry who do not have an ETA.

Confusion and uncertainty may also exist for those seeking to travel from two different points in the Republic of Ireland, but who travel through Northern Ireland to get to the second point. For example, the quickest route for most of County Donegal to and from Dublin means travelling through County Tyrone on the A5, even without stopping. A short journey from Clones to Cavan town entails a short road journey that weaves in and out of Northern Ireland in the south-east of County Fermanagh. There is now an enhanced consequence of the Illegal Migration Bill for those who knowingly come into the UK, including Northern Ireland, without permission, including having an ETA.

The interpretation of “knowingly” will be crucial, including in what circumstances it is deemed reasonable or otherwise for someone to be expected to know that requirement. In the event that the term “knowingly” is interpreted in due course in a very narrow way, it may render the application of the ETA to movements within the common travel area to be relatively meaningless in certain respects. None the less, it will still leave that degree of jeopardy and uncertainty for tourists. Someone could potentially be deported to their own country or a third country, even banned from ever returning, under the provisions of clause 2 of the Illegal Migration Bill. That risk is most acute with inadvertent movements over the land border, because elsewhere, at air and sea ports, there would be safeguards.

Any such outcomes for tourists moving into Northern Ireland would send a terrible message regarding the UK being open or otherwise to international tourism. I understand that the Government are looking at that particular point in relation to the Illegal Migration Bill, and I would welcome any clarification from the Minister in that regard, not least given that the Bill has now concluded its formal proceedings.

It is worth stressing the potential legal jeopardy will also apply to visa nationals who are ordinarily resident in the Republic of Ireland and who cross into Northern Ireland without proper permission. I shall give a couple of examples. A woman from Kenya, living legally in County Donegal, could cross the border, which is a simple bridge, into Strabane to do some weekly shopping, and end up interacting with the state and attracting the attention of immigration control. She could be detained and deported back to Kenya. A Nigerian man, travelling between two points in the Republic of Ireland, could unfortunately have a traffic accident and come to the attention of the state. Again, under clause 2 of the Bill, he could be deported, not just back to his home in Ireland, but all the way back to Nigeria.

There will be a resultant impact on the tourism sector in Northern Ireland from the ETA. Tourism professionals tell us that additional bureaucracy and costs are decisive in what are otherwise marginal tourism decisions. That could be an American choosing between going from Dublin to Cork and going from Dublin to Belfast. Despite having some amazing scenery—already alluded to—and wonderful attractions, the tourism sector in Northern Ireland is still below its full potential. Profit margins are very narrow in that sector, so this additional burden and deterrence could be critical, and make or break for a number of operators and attractions. Overseas tourism represents 25% of the annual tourism spend in Northern Ireland, so it is very significant.

A potential pragmatic solution lies in granting a short exemption for tourists to come to Northern Ireland for around five to seven days, without the need for an ETA. There is no routine immigration control planned anyway, so the actual threat to the integrity of the UK borders is overstated as a contrary argument. Legal jeopardy would kick in after that period of exemption had expired, if the person had not left the UK or otherwise applied for an ETA. The Northern Ireland tourism sector believes that that exemption is not only vital but workable. Another angle could be to decriminalise the penalties for someone who crosses inadvertently. That is another potential angle that we would like to put on the table.

I shall move on to a wider issue. Despite Home Office assurances that no immigration checks will take place along the land border, individuals travelling between Northern Ireland and Britain, or directly from Ireland to GB, may still encounter some immigration inspections. An inconsistency between residents and tourists on the island of Ireland raises concerns about how one could possibly differentiate between the two, as determining who fits into each category is highly subjective. Such subjectivity could create fertile ground for perpetuating biases and heightening the risk of racial profiling.

The instance of racial discrimination and profiling within the common travel area has generated significant alarm, with direct negative consequences on our racialised and migrant communities. We would welcome clarity on how the Government intend to safeguard the rights of people of colour departing the island of Ireland, ensuring that racial profiling does not increase on such journeys.

It is worth stressing that until recently, there has been a degree of harmony in how the UK and Ireland have managed movements around these islands. Notably, both the UK and Ireland stayed outside the Schengen arrangements when they were first put in place. However, we are now seeing the implications of growing divergence. The Government may well reference the US electronic system for travel authorisation, and the fact that the European Union is developing its own system specifically for the Schengen zone. However, Ireland is not joining the EU system. Any notion of reinventing an all-islands framework to manage such an arrangement, even if politically doable, would flounder on the basis that Ireland cannot restrict or impinge the free movement of EU citizens beyond passport control, while the post-Brexit UK can.

In conclusion, this is a significant issue for the tourism sector in Northern Ireland specifically. We are joined today by some of its representatives in the Public Gallery. I appreciate that there has been considerable communication between stakeholders and the Minister and his officials, but we do not yet have a solution to this extremely thorny problem. We believe that a pragmatic solution is warranted on the island of Ireland, given our very particular circumstances, and I look forward to a constructive response from the Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) on securing the debate, and I thank his colleagues from Northern Ireland—the hon. Members for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson)—for attending. I thank him for the opportunity to further discuss what is, as he said, an important issue for Northern Ireland.

I intend to cover as many of the specific points that have been made as possible, although the purpose of the debate is not to relitigate the UK Government’s decision to introduce an electronic travel authorisation, or ETA, scheme. It is worth explaining that decision. The ETA scheme will enhance the Government’s ability to screen visitors and prevent the travel of those who pose a risk to the UK.

The introduction of an ETA scheme is in line with the approach that many of our international partners already take to border security. The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have similar schemes, and the European Union is preparing to introduce the comparable European travel information authorisation scheme, or ETIAS. That scheme is due to be implemented later this year, although we hear from the Commission that it may be somewhat delayed. In that sense, the UK is not an outlier; it is moving in lockstep with international partners. However, I appreciate that the Republic of Ireland has not chosen thus far to create its own scheme, and there may be reasons why it is particularly difficult for it to do so.

Overall, we believe that the UK will be a safer place as a result of the ETA scheme, but that is not to deny the fact that the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland pose a series of challenges, which is the purpose of this debate. The Government have tried to take a pragmatic approach, which is seen most vividly in the exemption for non-visa national residents of Ireland. In response to concerns raised by Members of this House and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, as well as other stakeholders, about the possible impact of ETAs on residents of Ireland who frequently cross the Northern Ireland-Ireland border, the Government have agreed to exempt non-visa nationals who are legally resident in Ireland from the requirement to obtain an ETA when travelling to the UK on a journey within the common travel area. In order to benefit from that exemption if required by a UK immigration official, those who are legally resident in Ireland may instead present physical evidence to demonstrate that they are legally resident in Ireland. That seems to be a satisfactory solution to most parties involved.

The next issue is whether the Government could agree some form of exemption for tourists. As the hon. Member for North Down said, I am grateful for opportunities to engage with him and others, including some of the tourism organisations who are in the Public Gallery. My officials have also done extensive engagement work behind the scenes.

We have carefully considered the request to exempt those tourists visiting Northern Ireland from Ireland from the ETA requirement due to concerns that the requirement to obtain an ETA will be considered a bureaucratic barrier for international visitors visiting Northern Ireland from Ireland. We appreciate that the Northern Irish economy depends to an extent on those visitors and that a number of businesses and sectors benefit significantly from tourists who primarily come to, or at least fly into, the Republic, but want to take advantage of the many great attributes of Northern Ireland, whether that is golfing or visiting the coastline or historic cities and towns. We appreciate the concern that those people may view this modest barrier as sufficient to deter them from making day trips to or overnight stays in Northern Ireland.

In the Government’s view, ETAs will for the first time allow us to have a comprehensive understanding of those seeking to come to the UK via the common travel area and to refuse them permission in the very judicious circumstances where that would be appropriate. Exempting tourists visiting Northern Ireland from Ireland from the requirement to obtain an ETA would, to our mind, result in an unacceptable gap in UK border security, which would allow persons of interest or risk who would be refused an ETA to enter the UK legally, undermining the very purpose of the ETA scheme, which is to prevent those who pose a risk to the UK from entering it.

Will the Minister respond directly to the point that the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and I made? While the Government’s justification for the ETA is to collect that data and have an understanding of who is coming in, the Government do not have the means to collect that data from people crossing the land border, because there is no routine immigration control on the border. As such, those tourists entering Northern Ireland will not be in the system, but none the less they still carry the legal jeopardy of having that legal requirement. That is the nub of the issue: they do not go through immigration control, but they still bear all the risks associated with it. That is the essence of the plea for pragmatism.

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes. This is not a perfect solution. A perfect solution is unavailable as long as we want to respect the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland and the common travel area, but we consider that it would be even more complex, or suboptimal, to have a situation where Northern Ireland was hived off from the scheme altogether. That would be a greater loophole in the ETA scheme and one that, having given this considerable thought, we are not willing to countenance.

I will come back to the hon. Lady in a few moments time. I would like to answer the questions posed by the hon. Member for North Down around non-compliance and the legal jeopardy of individuals, because those are important points. As now, the UK will not operate routine immigration controls on journeys from within the common travel area, with no immigration controls whatsoever on the Ireland-Northern Ireland land border. However, as is currently the case, individuals arriving in the EU, including those crossing the land border will need to continue to enter in line with the UK’s immigration framework, including the requirement now to obtain an ETA. For example, visa nationals are required to obtain a visa for the UK when travelling via Ireland to lawfully enter the United Kingdom. That is a well-established requirement, and we are simply extending the same principle to individuals requiring an ETA.

The Government will launch a clear communications strategy to tackle any misunderstandings about the requirement on travel to Northern Ireland. That is something we are preparing, and we will work extensively with Northern Irish, Irish and island of Ireland tourism organisations to ensure that we get this right. For individuals who accidentally travel to Northern Ireland without an ETA under the illegal entry offence, we want to take a sensible and pragmatic approach. We have made it clear that prosecutions under illegal entry will focus on the most egregious cases and not on accidental errors.

We will take a very careful approach when examining the individual circumstances of each case before deciding whether or not it should be pursued for prosecution, and the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales and the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland will ultimately determine whether a prosecution is proportionate and in the public interest. We hope and expect that they will take that responsibility very seriously, so those individuals who are simply going about their daily lives or who are tourists who inadvertently forget to obtain an ETA will not be put in an unnecessarily difficult situation.

As the Minister can see from the debate, this is an issue that has a very broad consensus—he will know that that is no mean feat—due to the very serious impact on tourism businesses. He will be aware of that impact and the fact that many decisions to come north are ad hoc ones to visit, for example, the Ulster Museum, the Lyric Theatre or the Let’s Go Hydro water park, or for destination shopping on the Lisburn Road. Has his Department conducted any economic analysis of the loss to Northern Irish businesses of those ad hoc decisions to come north for just one day in a trip to the island?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to note all of the many reasons why it is great to visit Northern Ireland; I have visited Northern Ireland myself on several occasions and always enjoyed it. The Department has conducted an impact analysis, which shows that there is an impact on tourism in Northern Ireland. However, we still consider that the overall value to the security of the United Kingdom outweighs concerns about that impact.

That does not mean that we do not take mitigating steps, one of which is to work with the Northern Irish tourism bodies on communications. I have mentioned that and my officials met representatives from the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance, Tourism Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland last month to begin discussions about how we can collectively work together on communications, both within the UK and abroad. Clearly, there is more work to be done in that regard with travel agents and some of the ancillary services to which the hon. Member for North Down referred, such as insurance companies and car rental companies, to ensure that this message is properly communicated to all involved.

We have deliberately chosen to keep the cost of the ETA as low as possible. We have now announced that it will have a maximum fee of £10, which compares favourably with the fees for the versions of the ETA in the EU and the United States, so we do not think that that level of fee is likely to deter visitors, particularly some of the higher-income and higher-spend tourists whom Members present are particularly concerned about.

We have also said that we will work very closely to keep this matter under review and of course we want to ensure that we learn from the initial experience once the system is created. If there are things that we need to do to change the system over time, we will do so. We want to work pragmatically with Northern Ireland and its MPs, because we care about the success of the Northern Irish economy.

In closing, I thank the hon. Member for North Down for securing this debate and for raising this issue today. I commit that we will continue to discuss this issue and will continue to work well with the organisations that I know he is in contact with, and we will try to find sensible, pragmatic solutions to make this system as successful as possible, while understanding that this is not the solution that he wanted. Nevertheless, we all share a common desire both to protect security for the people of Northern Ireland and of the wider United Kingdom and, of course, to ensure growth and prosperity in the years ahead, particularly for the critical sector of tourism.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.