To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to improve the official information available, including on the United Kingdom Border Agency website, for long- and short-term visitors to the United Kingdom, and in particular artists and entertainers.
My Lords, on 21 November Visa4UK, the UK’s online visa application system for overseas customers, was upgraded to make applications easier to complete. The content of the former UKBA’s website will be transferred to gov.uk by the end of March 2014. Those measures will make immediate improvements to the online customer experience for all users, including the artists and entertainers mentioned by the noble Earl in his Question.
I thank the Minister for that helpful reply but does he realise that the official artists and entertainers information is out of date and does not include the permitted paid engagements scheme the Government introduced to improve the system? Can something be done more quickly to ensure that those planning to visit this country have access to the most up-to-date information at all times? They cannot wait on UKBA reorganisation.
My Lords, this is well recognised by us and we regret that the publication of the revised leaflet, of which the noble Earl will be well aware, has been delayed. We plan to publish the revised leaflet in the next few weeks on the existing website. It will move in due course to gov.uk as part of the wider web content migration. We are grateful for the contribution made by the noble Earl and representatives of the arts sector in developing the leaflet and for their helpful feedback on immigration systems for artists and entertainers.
My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of the case of the singer and composer Pamela Z, who came from San Francisco on a PPE visa on the invitation of Sussex University and City University, London? She was held by UKBA at Gatwick for more than three hours and eventually allowed to enter only on the extraordinary condition that she could teach at Sussex but not perform at City University. Can my noble friend clarify whether non-EU performing artists invited on these visas by higher education institutes can both teach and perform? Indeed, perhaps he can tell us how to distinguish between the two on every occasion.
My noble friend makes a very good point. In fact, I have had some briefing on this incident and I am grateful that it has been drawn to our attention. We suspect that a deficiency in the guidance of the operation of the rules rather than the rules themselves led to this incident. I do not want to go into a lot of detail about a particular circumstance but my noble friend’s comments have not gone unnoticed.
My Lords, this is a bit of a shambles and it is also becoming highly embarrassing for the UK. Towards the end of last week a London concert by the Pakistani Sachal Jazz Ensemble was cancelled because of visa problems. The residents of New York had enjoyed packed performances at the Lincoln Center just the week before but the musicians had problems getting visas to come to the UK. A Home Office statement today says:
“Britain is open for business and genuine visitors and tourists coming here to enjoy our world class attractions, study or do business are always welcome”.
It does not appear like that to those artists and performers who are having great problems getting to this country to perform, so our citizens are denied the opportunity to see them whereas American citizens have not been. Can the noble Lord give this urgent attention? I am sorry to say that his answers so far sound slightly complacent.
I hope the noble Baroness will never assume that I am complacent about anything. I am well briefed on this subject too and this incident. It is part of our commitment to work with those putting on concerts and international events to ensure that they are aware of the visa application process. However, the responsibility to have the correct visas rests with people coming here and guidance is available on the website to help them before they travel. As with any other visitors to the UK, we expect individuals to meet our entry requirements. I can say no more than that.
My Lords, I do not wish to argue that all clergy are entertainers as that would not be true in my experience. But can the Minister comment on the frustration felt again and again by Christian people—clergy and others, especially from Africa—who are invited by dioceses in this country with expenses guaranteed? They have to travel long distances and are not always able to access websites to apply for a visa and are then faced with delay or refusal based on the assumption that they will not return home to their families and responsibilities.
I am sure the right reverend Prelate will be aware of the responsibility on all Border Agency staff to deal judiciously with these matters. However, they can act only on the information that they have when people present themselves for entry. I hope that the new website will make it much easier for everybody to come here. If anybody is organising an event which involves people coming from overseas, they have an opportunity, in a spirit of partnership, to make sure that everybody is aware of the documentation they require. There is no difficulty getting that documentation provided the application is made.
My Lords, will the Minister take a look at the Russian situation? Next year—2014—is designated the UK-Russia Year of Culture. At the first meeting of the joint Russian-British committee, we were informed by the Russian ambassador that considerable trouble and expense are involved in getting Russian artists over here to perform. As we are about to embark on a joint year of culture, as I said, perhaps he will be kind enough to look at this.
I am very happy to pass that message on within the Home Office. I recognise the importance of Russian art and culture in many art forms, not least music. We have made enormous strides in our relationship with China, another country with a large number of potential visitors, and we hope that that will set a useful precedent for arrangements we can make with Russia.