My Lords, the UK Border Agency offers a limited visa application service in Baghdad for certain designated categories of application which was extended to Erbil on a trial basis earlier this year. In addition, Iraqi nationals can lodge all categories of visa applications at designated posts in Damascus, Amman, and Beirut.
My Lords, Iraq, particularly Iraqi Kurdistan, wants to do business with Britain and yet Iraqi business people may have to go as far afield as Amman to obtain a business visa. A Schengen visa is more easily available in Baghdad. Is it not high time that the Home Office and UKBA joined up with UKTI and the business department to make sure that Britain can do business with these business people?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a pertinent point. One of the senior directors of UKBA visited Baghdad in early March and it is clear that there is a need for more links and connections as we move from a military relationship with Iraq to a very different one on a civil basis. As a first step we are allowing in certain groups of students whom the Iraqis want to send around the world. At the moment they number only 200 to 300 but that figure will rise to 500 and then to 10,000. We are also looking at the possibility of allowing a visa section to be set up. However, there are still significant problems in terms of overall cost, security and where such a section would be accommodated. This is being looked at and it is appropriate that we should make these moves, but we have to be sure that it is done safely, in the correct way and at the right sort of cost.
My Lords, most of the visas done at the moment—around 700 a year in Baghdad and 10 a week in Erbil—tend to be for diplomats, very senior officials and people like that, and there is of course no charge. We are looking into how we can get round charging for the student visas because we want to encourage that linkage. As for those going to the other places I mentioned, there is a standard charge.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will want to echo the comments made by the American authorities yesterday about the brilliant job that our troops have done in the Basra area as they now prepare to withdraw and the recognition that this a sign that Iraq could be back on the path to some kind of economic normality. Although I am encouraged by what he says, we must be realistic that some of our trading partners and rivals are already investing heavily in Iraq and exchanging all kinds of trade and personnel movements? We need to keep up with that because Iraq could once again become within the next five years one of the world’s major oil producers as well as a very rich country in many other ways. Does he accept that we need to keep close to Iraq and show that we both invest there and encourage people to come here?
My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. I have nothing but admiration for the performance of our forces in Iraq; what has happened there has been remarkable. I have visited Iraq a number of times and regularly went there when I was First Sea Lord. We will be drawing down our 4,100 troops to about 400 and the Royal Navy will still be there, training its navy in a very successful little niche in the south. Yes, we do need to make these links with Iraq. I remember going there just after the invasion. When I was sitting on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab, I met a man I had met in 1966, and we talked about the future. There are all kinds of potential in that marvellous country, which has many well-educated people and natural resources. The noble Lord is right: we must engage with them fully. I hope that they have a good and bright future, because that is what all of us would like to happen.
My Lords, the total number of applicants assessed as eligible so far is in the region of 500. We have found that about 50 per cent of those would rather take the financial offer that we make. The reason for that goes back to what I said previously about there being real hope in Iraq now. They want to stay there and are taking the financial package rather than coming here. The Gateway process is still going ahead and working successfully. Overall, since it started, it has resettled a total of 750 people, which includes the people involved and their children. A further 200 spaces have been allocated for further Iraqi refugees and the programme is moving on well. We owe these people and it is absolutely right that we should look after them after they have worked with our forces out there.
My Lords, a great many business opportunities available to us in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq are being hindered by the necessity for people to go to Amman to get visas. Considering that the Germans have no difficulty in offering visa facilities through their consulate in Erbil, why cannot we do the same?
My Lords, I had hoped that I had answered that. There are still issues of safety and cost and so on and, sadly, the UK is generally slightly more at risk from AQ than the Germans are. AQ lists the US, the UK and Israel rather closely together, although the US and Israel are probably slightly ahead of us. That is a reality and a fact of life. We look at this in terms of the safety of our staff and the people there and the total cost. At the moment, it costs us about £600 to process each of the small number of visas that we issue in Erbil. Clearly we have to resolve that before we can extend the scheme. However, the noble Lord is right. We need to do that because Iraq is important and there is huge potential there. It would good for Iraq and good for this country.
My Lords, I am sorry. We have reached the 15-minute mark.