All visitors to the United Kingdom are expected to hold a valid passport and visa where necessary. However, as part of an overall agreement on migration reached with France during the March summit between the Prime Minister and the French President, we have committed to easing travel between our two countries for schoolchildren on organised trips. Work is now under way to operationalise these arrangements.
My Lords, today the Tourism Alliance released figures predicting that this year there will be an almost 40% shortfall on 2019 levels for school visits from the EU because of passport concerns. This is costing us jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds in revenue, with Ireland now a favoured destination instead. Will the Government introduce the preferred option of a youth group visa scheme, recognising ID cards and third-party nationals for visits from across the whole EU, bearing in mind the low risk of schoolchildren on organised trips absconding or overstaying?
Clearly, there has been a reduction in the number of organised school groups coming to the UK since 2019. However, it is likely that socioeconomic factors such as the cost of living and the ongoing Covid recovery are having an impact on school groups coming to the UK. As I said, on 10 March, at the summit between the Prime Minister and the French President, the UK committed to easing the travel of school groups to the UK. That includes consideration of changes that would permit the use of national identity cards for French schoolchildren travelling on organised trips, and potentially waiving UK visa requirements for their classmates who may be visa nationals.
My Lords, although the French arrangement is welcome, the Government support the transfer of pupils from the UK to the EU through the collective passports regime—obviously not for all countries, but for a large number. Is it the UK Government’s ambition to replace that system for students coming to the UK from countries throughout the EU? If so, do they intend to put forward a replacement at the earliest opportunity, so that the lost income, support and knowledge of the United Kingdom among young people can be replaced by a workable system?
Although collective passports remain government policy, it is perhaps of note that a number of signatories to the 1961 Council of Europe treaty that underpins their use have already indicated their intention to move away from accepting collective passports. These include Bulgaria, Estonia, Portugal, Luxembourg, Romania and Slovakia. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that collective passports seem to be out of step with advanced passenger information requirements, as required by the EU’s ETIAS scheme and our electronic travel authorisation. Continuing to use collective travel documents is unlikely to be compatible, and therefore agreements of the type that the Prime Minister agreed with France would seem to be a satisfactory way forward.
My Lords, can the Minister say whether he has yet had an opportunity to read the 29 April report of the European Affairs Committee of your Lordships’ House? It recommended easing these restrictions not just for France but for all members of the European Union. Does he not think it a little odd that the Government are taking this time, the high season for school visits, to operationalise the agreement with France?
UK schoolchildren travelling to Europe will need to travel on their passports, as they do not have ID cards; that is consistent with what the EU expects. It is open to other Governments to negotiate an arrangement of the kind we have now negotiated with the French Government, and we would welcome such a step.
My Lords, what are the Government doing to ensure that British children, irrespective of their background, have the opportunity to go on school trips aboard and to gain the opportunity to see and experience different cultures and languages? What are the Government doing to ensure that, now Covid is no longer a barrier, the cost of living crisis is not having the same effect?
We recognise the importance of cultural and educational exchanges between the UK and other nations. It is worth noting that our offer to visitors is among the most generous in the world. Since the UK left the EU, EU students and pupils have been treated like students from the rest of the world; they may come either under the visitor route or as students. We provided almost a year’s notice for the present change to allow groups to plan ahead and to obtain passports before travelling. As I said, it may well be that agreements are made with countries other than France, but it is very significant that our closest continental neighbour has entered into such an agreement.
My Lords, according to the British Youth Council, almost none of the projects previously funded by Erasmus+ involving school-age children’s trips or exchanges is now being funded through the Turing scheme. Will His Majesty’s Government review and revise the remit of Turing so that incoming trips as part of a school partnership are included?
While a system for the long term is being worked on, one way to lessen the problems at the moment would be to invest more in schooling across the board. I have seen that in operation in places where schools have, at certain times, a curriculum that is identical to that of other partners. That might at least do something to close the gap that exists at the moment.
My Lords, the Minister talked about the importance of cultural exchanges, and I agree. Can he tell the House what progress is being made to negotiate with our European neighbours a scheme whereby young musicians and youth orchestras can tour in Europe, which they did so successfully in the years before we left the EU?
Clearly, once the electronic travel authorisation scheme is in place, holders of EU passports will be able to apply for permission to travel to the UK, which will last for a period of three years. Similarly, our own British musicians will be able to apply for an ETIAS under the European scheme, which will enable them to travel for the requisite period. As to the particular details in relation to assistance for musicians, I am afraid that I do not have the answer to hand; I will look into that and write to the noble Viscount.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that education in Wales is a fully devolved subject, and the Welsh Government are very keen indeed to have exchanges in both ways with European countries. However, the border control is not devolved. Can the Minister give an assurance to the House that the Home Office and associated departments in charge of border control liaise positively with devolved Governments to maximise the extent to which pupils can come and go between us and Europe?
Clearly, the reforms in relation to school groups arriving in the UK were taken as a result of our international change of status, but of course it is important that central government works with the devolved institutions in this sort of area. I agree with him in that respect, and I am sure that work is ongoing, although I do not have the facts at my fingertips.
I do not have the figures for Ireland, unsurprisingly. Clearly, one may conjecture that, because Ireland is not a member of the Schengen area, there is therefore some frictional inspection of travel documentation for visitors to the Republic by school groups. It will not surprise the noble Lord to learn that I cannot presently explain any difference in statistics until I look at them, so I will have to look into that and write to him in respect of it.
My Lords, can I go back to the issue of British schoolchildren visiting Europe? The excellent Taith scheme in Wales has helped many thousands of children to go there, and one thing that could happen to the Turing scheme is that it is expanded so that British schoolchildren can be funded to visit Europe, which the European Affairs Committee feels would culturally be of great benefit and advantage. Can the Minister comment?
As I said a moment ago, I am not privy to the funding arrangements for the Turing scheme. It seems to me that what the noble Earl suggests is a sensible course, and I will certainly take it away and discuss it with my colleagues from the Department for Education.