To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the cases cited by the National Campaign for the Arts and the Manifesto Club in which the points-based visa system for non-European Union visiting artists and academics denied entry for those wanting to carry out bona fide activities; and what action they propose in response.
My Lords, the cases cited reflect concern that the points-based system prevents the entry of legitimate artists and academics. We do not believe this to be so. Implementation has generally been smooth, successful and well received. Where there have been teething problems, we have addressed them and we continue to fine-tune to ensure that we are delivering a system which is robust, objective, responsive and fair.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He spoke about “teething problems”. The current visa arrangements for artists and entertainers have had an appalling effect on arts and cultural exchange in this country. They have affected music, theatre, literature, dance, opera and the visual arts, and education. While there have been some minor improvements, they have not been fundamental. There are still major issues to be resolved; for example, questions of training for UKBA officers, clarity of guidance, stamping of passports even, biometric machinery and the sheer discretion given to immigration officials. When will Ministers take a grip of this real issue and make sure that these problems are resolved?
My Lords, the noble Lord does not do justice to what the Government are seeking to do, working with the arts and entertainment taskforce and the National Campaign for the Arts—the independent body representing people in culture of all forms. There have been a number of major changes. Ministers have taken a keen interest. My colleague in the other place, Phil Woolas, has met the NCA twice. He meets the task force regularly—they met as recently as 24 November. Among the changes that have been made is a system whereby performers who normally require a visa but who come to the UK for less than three months are not required to apply in advance. We also have provision to accept applications for entry from countries in which the artists are performing, rather than having them go back to their country of origin to do so. We have created a new entertainer visa category for performers who do not require sponsorship. As a consequence, costs are now less for the entertainers, who pay a lower visa fee. In addition, we have retained a route for overseas film crews on location shoots. We have made these and a number of other concessions and changes to meet the wishes of the sector concerned. I believe that we have support for the changes from the NCA and the task force.
But did my noble friend not note that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, included education among the areas that he criticised? Is it not the case that in both the public and private sectors of higher education the number of overseas students who have entered this country in the present year has greatly increased, which is partly because of the efficiency and the effectiveness with which the points-based system is working in higher education? It is clear that there are still problems to be ironed out, but, overall, this country has benefited enormously from the increase in immigration to higher education in this country.
My noble friend makes an important point. Students from overseas are a valued part of our community. We have to take a balanced approached to immigration laws, but those students are of great advantage. My noble friend is right that there are welcome indications of an increased number of students. We are carrying out a review also of the tier 4 category to ensure that the increase is among those who are legitimately entitled to be here. A review has been called by the Prime Minister and its outcome will be known early in the new year. We shall see whether any changes need to be made in that category.
My Lords, I have raised this question in the past with regard to Commonwealth artists who wish to come over here, because the scheme is based on the Australian points system. As I have often said, no one goes to Australia to become a world-famous artist. They tend to come from there, and people such as Joan Sutherland have established their world career here. The Minister said in response to my previous question that flexibility would allow those people to continue study for longer. I have had good reports back on that point. So there is a greater element of flexibility than there was in the past, is there not?
Many high-tech companies are probably going to have to relocate their training facilities abroad because they cannot bring people in to train here. This is causing us to slide down the global knowledge economy scale. Does the Minister think this is useful for the UK?
My Lords, would my noble friend agree with me that this Government have on the whole had an admirable record in support of the arts in this country and indeed in supporting artists from this country in their efforts to take their arts elsewhere? Would he also agree, however, that this particular issue has caused some concern in the arts community, as he has already indicated? Would he assure the House that the matter will be kept under review so that any inadvertent abuses are caught before they turn into problems?
My Lords, I am happy to give my noble friend that assurance. I know that my ministerial colleague Phil Woolas takes a keen interest in this area and, as I indicated, has regular meetings. On the point made in the original Question about training, guidance and training is given to staff. If we find there are any errors, abuses or what-have-you, we will investigate immediately and ensure that adequate training and guidance is given to avoid what sometimes happens in the process which is not the intention of government or policy. On this occasion, the teething problems have largely been solved.
On a point of information, the Minister might perhaps help the House by saying how many performing artists have been denied access to this country through this points-based system. I appreciate he may not have the answer now, so could he perhaps put a note in the Library about it? Then we might have an indication of how well or how badly the system is working.
The noble Lord is correct; I do not have a figure in my brief. The reasons why people are denied entry are as important as the numbers of people involved. It can well be for reasons of process that people do not have the required points under the points-based system, or that they do not apply in time, or for other reasons. I will investigate the point the noble Lord makes and take up his suggestion of providing a note.
My Lords, the Minister refers to training. It is quite clear that problems have arisen because of the inadequacy of training and insufficient knowledge on the part of those delivering the service— and it is a service. Will he acknowledge that, as for artists and for academics coming to speak at conferences, and I suppose for politicians, the UK Border Agency is only as good as its last performance?
I would certainly agree with the noble Baroness’s latter point. Our border patrol service, in the sense that we police our borders and interrogate and talk to would-be entrants, has a high reputation worldwide. It is seen to be friendly and it is seen to be, by and large, efficient. If you are subject to delay, whether it is your fault or the fault of someone else, you will not see the agency in that way. We believe the satisfaction rate is very high, however, and we investigate and seek to put right any errors that are made en route.
My Lords, I do not know whether anybody else in the House has been confused by the Minister this afternoon as much as I have. Earlier on, he talked about a fast-track system where people could get their visas at ports of entry—airports, the port of Southampton and so on. Just now, in answer to a question from behind me, he said that one of the reasons for denying a visa in such cases would be the points-based system. While I approve of the points-based system in general terms, is it working in these terms?
I do not know whether the confusion is in the noble Lord’s mind or in mine, but I did indicate that the fast-track system is for artists arriving here from the countries in which they are already performing and who do not require to stay for more than three months. As regards points, under tier 1, one has to acquire points in order to enter. Academics and artists can come under tier 5, but some of the problems from the cases indicated by the Manifesto Club are that it is not clear whether the individuals were in breach of conditions of visas. For example, academic visas do not allow working beyond honorarium—they do not allow people to become salaried. In that sense, therefore, there is no reason why entry may be denied. As I indicated to the previous speaker, however, I will investigate and produce an answer.