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Passport and Visa Measures

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review their decision not to exempt young people from European Union member states on school trips to the United Kingdom from the new passport and visa measures due to come into force on 1 October.

My Lords, EU, EEA and Swiss students are now subject to the same rules as students from the rest of the world. They may come under the visitor route or as a student, but from 1 October they will require a passport like everyone else and we do not plan to review this decision.

My Lords, what a depressing advert for global Britain. Thousands of schoolchildren from Europe will not now be visiting our country since they will no longer be able to use an EU or EEA ID card. There is no doubt that the requirement for passports and, in some cases, visas, will put such trips beyond the capacity of many schools. It is short-sighted, petty and mean-spirited, and it means that, without these cultural exchanges with young people in Europe, we will not have the long-term economic and cultural links we have enjoyed for so long. The Minister says it will not be reconsidered; I ask her to reconsider this really outrageous decision.

I reiterate that we will not be reconsidering, but I do not agree with that assertion that thousands of children will not be visiting. What about the children from the rest of the world who visit this country? Are they in a different category? We are treating everybody in exactly the same way. Of course, there is always the option to get collective passports for groups of children issued under the 1961 Council of Europe treaty.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is getting a bit of a reputation for doing everything to annoy Europe. The Minister speaks about other countries, but all the nearby countries are in the European Union. All we are doing is making people feel unwelcome. We are tearing up something which does not need to be torn up. The Minister says that she will not reconsider, so I will not ask her to, but I will ask her to reflect on the damage this is doing to Britain’s reputation outside this country.

I have much respect for my noble friend, but one could flip that the other way and say of the long-standing issue of children outside the EU: have we made them feel unwelcome for years? I do not think we have.

My Lords, I raised this issue during the passage of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020. The Government then argued that this will be a security risk, which I think is rather far-fetched. I absolutely agree with the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Balfe, that this is going to dent our reputation and does not in any way promote global Britain. I argue that this is very short-sighted; I think that it will damage our economy and education institutions, and lead to an end of short-term school trips. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that the fact it affects the rest of the world is not important—it is the question of our relationship with Europe. It is important that we do not in any way dent our soft power.

My Lords, that issue of the UK annoying the EU could also be read both ways. But it is not a question of not welcoming people—it is putting everybody on an equal footing going forward from 1 July.

My Lords, I am mystified. Will the Minister encourage her colleagues to look again—but not in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asks—at making it so that children from all over the world conform to the arrangements currently in force for children in Europe? That is another way of solving the problem. I note that 750,000 children from Germany and France alone have come on an annual basis under the present arrangements. Is she convinced that she could persuade the entertainment, tourism, heritage and cultural institutions of this country looking for a post-Covid boost that the refusal to reconsider this is logical or legitimate?

I think what the noble Lord is proposing is to make the rest of the world in line with what we had in the EU—in other words, to have an open borders policy with no passports. The answer is no, I am afraid.

My Lords, this attempt to elide European school students with the rest of the world really will not wash because, as well as talking about being ambitious for global Britain, the other favourite slogan of the Brexiter Government, is “We may have left the EU but we haven’t left Europe”. This restrictive policy towards European school students is narrow-minded and bad for Britain. One of the advantages of the present system is that no child is left out, so those who cannot afford a passport or are non-EU citizens and would need a visa are included. Do this Government really want to penalise schoolchildren and damage our reputation and, indeed, our economy?

Again, I put it back to the noble Baroness: what about people who cannot afford a passport and do not live in the EU? Do they not matter?

I think that many in the House will be extremely disappointed with the responses the Minister has given. Last year, noble Lords raised this issue, warning of potential problems. Given that these have now arisen, can the Minister tell the House how many EU schoolchildren she estimates will be affected by the changes? Is she not concerned in the slightest that barriers to visiting and learning in the UK will give a negative impression of our country to those young people and their families—one that might, in time, be to the detriment not only of our economy but of our cultural and global reputation?

The noble Lord will not be surprised to know that I do not agree with him. In terms of numbers, it is very difficult to prove a negative: for example, how many children will not be able to visit because of the system we have. One might also about children who are currently outside of the EU. I mentioned collective passports, which are a route for groups of children to come to this country and are, I think, very affordable.

My Lords, it is not a level playing field; working- class kids from the poorest communities in the neighbouring countries which are the cheapest to get here will lose out. Middle-class and rich kids will get here whatever country they are from; that will continue. It will be the poorest kids from a variety of backgrounds, like the mining communities where I brought kids over from different countries to meet kids in our country. They are the ones who will lose out because the disproportionate increase in costs will not be borne by their parents. The poorer kids will lose from this policy, whether they are in Norway, which is not in the EU, or an EU country. The Government should think again.

My Lords, I know that many schools have arrangements. When my children were at school there were children whose parents could not afford to send them on school trips, of which there were many, or perhaps to another country. There are generally provisions within schools to help out in such situations.

My Lords, this is not a matter of upsetting the European Union, but a matter of geography, history and educational connectivity and is about the reputation of our country. You can get into this country if you have £2 million whatever your circumstances, never mind whether we really want you or not, but you cannot come here under present arrangements from 1 July with a school party on the existing provisions if you come from those countries that historically we have welcomed. Surely the Minister, who is the conduit rather than the cause of our concerns, might back to the Home Secretary and say: “Yes, I know there’s a policy, which is to prevent as many people as possible coming to the United Kingdom, but at some point, does this not have a major detrimental effect down the line when people who were forbidden to come under existing arrangements remember?”

It is not a question of forbidding people to come to this country, nor one of not welcoming children from all over the world, but it is a situation where the EU and the rest of the world are now all being treated the same way. Collective passports are in place and I am sure that there are arrangements within many schools to help children who cannot afford them, but we are not forbidding them. I just want to correct the noble Lord on that.