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School Trips: Passport and Visa Requirements

Volume 818: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the consequences of current passport and visa requirements on the number of school trips from continental Europe to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord wants to ask the Question. Before he does so, perhaps I may say to the House that yesterday I was quite insistent that not only had I sent out a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, but that the whole Committee had had a copy of it. I had cleared the letter but it had not gone out. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for alerting me to that this morning and I apologise unreservedly to the Committee and the House.

We no longer accept national identity cards as a valid travel document from EU, EEA and Swiss visitors to the UK. The experience at the UK border since the change has been positive, with EU, EEA and Swiss citizens making the switch to use their passports for travel. We do not plan to change that approach.

Around 1 million European children, mostly from France and Germany, used to come to the UK each year on school trips. Now that people need passports and, in some cases, visas, bookings for the UK are widely reported to have collapsed. Ireland and even Normandy are stepping in. Will the Government either bring back ID card travel for these low-risk groups or devise a simple group travel scheme that will let us welcome them to this country?

My Lords, it is quite early in the implementation to say just which way overall bookings are going but certainly Ireland is reporting positively on this. Of course, there are in existence such things as collective group passports, although they will decline over time. However, we do not plan to bring ID cards back and it is important that we have secure documents such as passports at the border.

My Lords, is not the reverse also damaging to our schoolchildren; namely, the fact that school trips from this country to the continent have been enormously cut back, with great harm to the education of our children? Is it not the same process as has happened to universities regarding the Erasmus scheme? The change has done colossal harm to internationalism and the transatlantic views of the British university population. Are our young people not all casualties of Brexit?

My Lords, that really is a stretch. We expect tourists who visit the UK from outside the EU to hold a passport and we now expect those from EU and EEA countries, and Switzerland, to do the same.

My Lords, we have a problem with people wanting to learn modern languages. There is a declining rate of people studying them. Does the Minister accept that, if we want to encourage their use, the Government should do their level best to encourage school travel—both into and out of this country? If this is not possible, because of some bureaucratic scheme, surely there is a case for changing the bureaucracy.

My Lords, this is not about bureaucracy. It is about the security of documents. It is quite early in the implementation process to say whether this has had a declining effect on tourism, but it should not have.

My Lords, in December, the Guardian reported the accommodation provider Lingua Stay as saying that schools across the continent had completely abandoned the UK in favour of other countries. Are the Government not concerned about the effect on the economy—including the education economy—of their decision not to allow group passports and IDs as travel documents for schools?

As I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, I think that collective, group passports are still in existence, although we expect them to be phased out at some point. The EU is now in the same situation as the rest of the world.

My Lords, in an answer last June, the Minister suggested that collective passports under the 1961 Council of Europe treaty could be used. It turns out that these can be used only for nationals of the country sending the visit; in other words, a Spanish student in a French school could not benefit from this. Will the Minister undertake to talk to the group of tourism blue badge holders in London to try to devise a scheme—for the whole world, not just for Europe—that encourages young people to come to Britain? It is first impressions that often bring a lifelong admiration for a country.

The noble Earl will know that we continue to accept collective passports from countries that have ratified the relevant Council of Europe treaty. Nineteen countries have done so but, in practice, only the UK, Malta and Slovenia actively issue them. As I said earlier, I think they will probably be phased out.

My Lords, it is not too early to tell what the results of the Government’s changes have been. Eurovoyages, a French school trip company, reported that, in 2019, 11,000 students were sent to the UK. This year, it will be between zero and 100. CTS Reisen, a German company, sent more than 1,200 school groups to the UK in 2019—some 37,000 pupils. In 2022, there are no firm bookings. This is the consequence of what the Government are doing. What does this say about Britain’s place in the world and the Government’s policy of global Britain?

My Lords, the Government’s argument that the continuation of this scheme would be a security risk and would discriminate against non-EU students has been taken on board by those administering these trips and by other interested parties, such as the British Guild of Tourist Guides and the Institute of Tourist Guiding. They have put forward some constructive suggestions to find a way through. Is the Minister willing to meet them?

My Lords, the Minister has twice cited security concerns to justify this change. What new security concerns have arisen since we left the EU?

Some ID cards are among the least secure documents seen at the border, as they were before we left the EU. As a rule, they are not as secure as corresponding national passports.

My Lords, I declare a family interest in that my younger daughter is a schoolteacher at a rural lycée in the centre of France in the Sarthe region. Every two years, until recently, she would bring a party of up to 40 of her 16 to 18 year- old students to London for a week’s cultural visit, which gave them an amazing experience and a lifelong love of England and English people. These have all now stopped because very few of the students have a passport; as a result, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred to, they are now looking at destinations such as Ireland. Will she take on board the comments of President Kennedy about the value of international exchange students, when he said of foreign students studying in the US:

“I think they teach more than they learn”?

I do not disagree with the noble Lord about the value of foreign travel for students at any age. It absolutely enriches their experience. However, we expect tourists who visit the UK from outside the EU to hold a passport and we will now be expecting those from EU and EEA countries and Switzerland to do the same.

My Lords, is the issue here not really about maintaining the deep web of human relationships between our country and our near neighbours into the period when we are no longer in the EU? I have had many conversations with French people who have said that coming here was their first contact with abroad, it made a deep and lasting impression and it led to a lifetime’s friendship with the UK. Surely for these children, who are a low security risk, it should be possible to find a pragmatic arrangement to allow them to come on a collective document.

I certainly agree with the noble Lord about a deep web of relationships. In fact, my first school trip was to France; I recall that it took probably five days on a coach and we only had two days there, but nevertheless it was a very enjoyable experience. However, we are now treating the whole of the world in the same way and we do not make any apologies for that.