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Iraq: Visas

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to provide in Iraq application and issuing facilities for visas for business visitors to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the UK Border Agency continues to keep the provision of visa services to Iraqi nationals, including for business visitors, under review, taking into account ongoing security, logistical and financial considerations. A joint visit by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UK Border Agency in March will review the possible extension of the limited visa service that is already available in Iraq for certain business and student categories. Iraqi nationals can lodge all categories of visa applications at designated posts in Damascus, Amman and Beirut.

My Lords, I cannot fault the Minister for consistency, but is this not the same old story that he has been dishing out since 2008? Is it not high time that we adopted the same business visa facilities as the Schengen countries do? Is he not aware of the damage being done to British business in Iraq as a result of this failure to issue these visas?

At the recent Erbil trade fair, there were 71 German companies. How many British companies were there? One.

My Lords, the Government’s consistency in response is matched only by the noble Lord’s consistency in asking the same question, and I am delighted to respond to that. The Government accept that there are huge opportunities in Iraq. One of the great joys about Iraq is that there is a relatively well educated population and there is actually money there, once it has sorted out oil production and that sort of thing. We understand that and indeed, we sent a team over there last March, and that is why we opened the facility in Erbil. We cleared a number of people to go to a UKTI meeting there to talk to people. We are looking again in March to try and expand this, but there are very real issues of security and cost. It is extremely expensive and we use a hub-and-spoke method elsewhere. We understand this and we are pushing to try to achieve as much as we can. There are huge opportunities for our businesspeople and those are being encouraged by UKTI.

My Lords, I have just returned from Baghdad. Is it not the case that we have a brand new embassy there and that security within Baghdad has improved considerably, even compared with last year? Is it not therefore high time that visas could be issued there to Iraqis who want to come to this country for business purposes?

My Lords, I agree that security has improved there. It is constantly under review. At the moment, because of security and other things, particularly for example in Erbil, it makes it extremely expensive to issue visas—probably in excess of £600 per visa given the work that has to go into them. It is under constant review, there are opportunities, and we want to push these. Yes, we see our competitors are being a little bit freer in this and that is why we have to move and will do so.

My Lords, BP has secured a contract to develop the super-giant Rumaila oilfield over the next 20 years at a cost of $15 billion. For that purpose it will need to bring dozens, if not hundreds of workers to the UK for training. Others, such as the British Council, are also bringing many Iraqi workers here for training. If the Minister cannot provide the facilities at the British embassy, why not sub-contract the provisions for the fingerprints and photographs which are needed for applications to one of the other embassies that are already doing it?

My Lords, the noble Lord highlights something that is a very positive move in Iraq. We are reviewing this all the time. I have no reason to believe that we will not be able to facilitate that movement of staff to enable those things to happen and to allow that flood of oil hopefully to come out through the facilities in the northern Gulf which the Royal Navy helps to look after.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for mentioning education. Given the devastation of universities in Iraq, is it possible to help students to get here quicker? I declare an interest. We admitted a student to a master’s degree last October, and after travelling in various countries in the Middle East, she has finally arrived, having missed one term of a course that is one academic year long. Is there any way that we could possibly help students to continue the great standard of education by coming here?

My Lords, the noble Baroness touches on an important issue. Education in this country is a gem and is seen as such around the world. It is very important for us in terms of influencing people and giving them the same perceptions of rights and all kinds of other things. We had a team in Iraq after Prime Minister Maliki’s visit and we came to an agreement to expedite and push through a raft of scholarship people into this country. Sadly, the administrative arrangements within Iraq did not quite match it and we are still waiting for that to happen. We will make more opportunities available as and when we can.

My Lords, given that Baghdad and Erbil operate a limited biometric capture facility for specified categories of applicant, are the Government able to collect biometric information for visas for Iraqi businessmen? Surely this would speed things up dramatically.

My Lords, I think I understand the question, which is that we should not take biometrics of businessmen. No, we make sure that we take the biometrics of people visiting this country. That is done and we make sure that it is done. It is one of the securities for our country.

My Lords, the Minister made a point about the expense involved in the issue of visas. Does he not also accept that, unless we get this right, the Exchequer will lose out considerably through loss of trade if we block or do not properly facilitate visas for business travellers?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right—I hoped that I had touched on this earlier—and that is why the situation is being reviewed in March. I agree that we need to open this up. We need to expand our links with Iraq because there are many opportunities there. As its oil comes online, it will have the money to implement these things and so it is in our interests to do that. However, there are issues of security and cost at the moment and that is why we are going to look at the situation again to try to advance it.