My Lords, there are no plans to change the visa requirements for citizens of Peru. Visas are a key part of the UK’s border and national security system. The UK keeps visa regimes under regular review. A visa regime does not set a higher bar; it merely changes where the decision is made.
My Lords, the UK is now the largest foreign investor in Peru, and the Government agree that they should strengthen their engagement with the Pacific Alliance, of which two other members, Mexico and Chile, are visa free. The requirements for Peru inhibit business, academic exchanges and tourism. Out of enlightened self-interest, would the Minister agree that on all economic and security criteria it is time now to restore visa-free status to Peru or, at the very least, remove short-term visa requirements as recommended by the international relations committee report last year?
My Lords, a visa regime is not necessarily a barrier to trade. We have really good trading relationships with many countries whose citizens require a visa to come to the UK. All non-EEA visitors to the UK are assessed against the same immigration rules, regardless of their nationality and whether there is a visa requirement. The processing times are very quick: 97% of non-settlement visa applications were decided within our 15-working-day processing time. As I have said before to the noble Baroness, we keep the regime under review.
My Lords, in keeping the visa regime under review, have Home Office Ministers had discussions about the position of visas for Peruvian citizens with the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, Mark Menzies MP, and the DIT’s trade commissioner? If not, would my noble friend agree to facilitate such meetings?
My noble friend obviously thinks I am far more influential than I am, but I know that bilateral relationships are very good with the countries that she mentioned. Those are certainly the sorts of countries with which we would like to see further trade relationships continue and expand.
My Lords, responding to the report that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred to from the international relations committee, on the United Kingdom and Latin America, the Government accepted the assertion of the committee that there is huge commercial potential in a relationship with Latin American countries. Indeed, they went further, saying that
“Latin America has huge potential for trade and investment with the UK. As we leave the EU, we … have been increasing our focus on Latin America.”
Given that that is absolutely contemporary, would it not be beneficial from that point of view to have a more flexible and less restrictive regime? Will the Minister—who I am sure is far more influential than she admitted—press for that in any future review?
Since the noble Lord asked so nicely, I will certainly take that back. I do not disagree with him at all that Latin America has great potential. I went to Mexico last year and I know that the Foreign Secretary has had talks with Peru. There is great untapped potential.
My Lords, I draw attention to my involvement with the Peru Support Group in the UK. The Minister indicated that security concerns were a prime issue in maintaining visas for Peruvian citizens coming to the UK. In 2016, Peru introduced a world-class biometric passport that complies with international security and control standards. Surely we now have the technical facilities needed to ensure that visa-free travel between Peru and the UK can be secure, or is there some other requirement that Her Majesty’s Government are looking to be fulfilled in order to facilitate visa-free travel—if so, what is it?
A number of considerations are taken into account when decisions are made to review visa requirements. They include, among other things, security compliance returns and prosperity. The noble Lord will understand that I cannot discuss the fine details of visa review changes on the Floor of the House, but these are just an example of some of the things that might be considered.
My Lords, following on from the point made by my noble friend Lord Reid of Cardowan, travel to the UK has understandably been devastated by the Covid-19 crisis, with knock-on damage to the economy through lost revenue and from reduced business, academia, commerce, tourism and travel. In the light of that, what action are the Government taking to ensure that there are no unnecessary barriers to Peru, Latin America or anywhere else in the world, so that, when we can enjoy travel again, trade and commerce can take place unhindered?
I can agree with almost everything the noble Lord says. Travel has been absolutely devastated and economies have been devastated through this period. I also agree with him that travel should be made as easy as possible, with no barriers in place. Having a visa requirement is not, in and of itself, a barrier. As I say, the grant rates are very high, and speedy, and visa requirements are kept under review.
My Lords, in asking whether the Home Office ever speaks to the FCDO or the Department for International Trade—or indeed, as has been said, to the Prime Minister’s trade envoy—I would also like to ask about the Department for Education. The number of students coming from Peru is currently diminishing. The process of getting a visa is lengthy and expensive, and the fact that Peru is treated differently from most other countries in Latin America for visa requirements is perceived as presenting a difficulty.
My Lords, as I say, a visa is required if you come to the UK from China, India, Turkey and the UAE. A visa should not be a barrier to travel. I understand the feeling that, if there were no visas, it would be better, but the situation is kept under review. I am sure there are noble Lords in this Chamber who look forward to the day when travel from Peru is visa free.
My Lords, to quote the UNHCR, Peru remains an important host country for large numbers of refugees. In the light of that, what changes do Her Majesty’s Government plan to make in Peru and other places around the world in response to the British Red Cross report last week on family reunion visas titled The Long Road to Reunion, calling for an initial online application process, noting that the cost, dangers and distance of travel to the visa application centre were the main challenges faced by families?
My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness’s point about visa application centres and some of the distances that people have to travel. We continually review our global visa operation to improve performance and accessibility so that people can make their applications as easily as possible.