My Lords, the visa section in Islamabad closed in May 2002 in response to security concerns. Since then we have worked towards the restoration of a full service. On
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for her reply. Is my noble friend aware that our visa section in Islamabad is the most under staffed and under-resourced yet the most profitable in terms of the income generated from visa applications? Does she agree with me that the visit visa waiting time is unacceptably long and that an urgent review is needed to improve this service? Will Her Majesty's Government undertake to investigate claims of alleged unscrupulous agents who are selling false documents and who are colluding with Gerry's FedEx staff? This is making it difficult for genuine visitors and is giving a bad name to Pakistan.
My Lords, as my noble friend will know, as he takes a great and detailed interest in the situation in Islamabad, the situation there is under constant review with the aim of restoring a full service in all categories as soon as circumstances allow. UK visas, the directorate that runs the visa department, has recently increased the number of entry clearance officer slots posted in Islamabad but it will take time to get staffing right. Both staffing numbers and productivity have increased. We are committed to offering customers in Pakistan the best service possible. Islamabad is currently accepting applications in all categories except for those under 25 applying as first-time visitors and working holidaymakers. Islamabad is handling 900 to 1,000 applications a day, equivalent to 220,000 a year, which is up from 120,000 last year. As regards the allegations of wrong-doing that my noble friend mentioned, if he will give me evidence, I shall certainly take it up with the department.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that suspension of visa facilities for people under 25 sends a very adverse signal to a fellow Commonwealth country at a time when soft diplomacy and friendship should be the way that we approach our relations with Pakistan? Does the Minister also agree that the problems in Islamabad are compounded by the fact that consular services in Lahore—a city of more than 7 million people with a geographical proximity to many areas where visitors to the UK, particularly family visitors, would be coming from—have still not been re-established, and that that is part of the problem in Islamabad?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her question. As she will know, applications from those under 25 who have not travelled before are highly resource intensive because they all need to be interviewed. That is why there is a restriction on that category. About half of those applications are refused as they fail to meet the requirements of the Immigration Rules. That is the problem with that category. However, we hope to reintroduce applications in that category as soon as possible. The noble Baroness will know that the visa office in Lahore was situated in a hotel which posed a real security problem for our staff there. However, she will also know that the Karachi office has now reopened and that there is a limited service there. As I said to my noble friend, we hope to be able to reopen a full service as soon as possible. We welcome all genuine applications to the United Kingdom and there is no limit on the number of people who wish to apply.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a very large number of people under 25—the category that she says are automatically refused—will be seeking to undertake their higher education in the United Kingdom? Is it not completely regrettable that we are saying to people from Pakistan—this seems to be the gist of my noble friend's Answer—that they cannot receive their higher education in this country, or are separate arrangements made for students?
My Lords, I reassure my noble friend that separate arrangements are being made for students. Islamabad has just been through the peak period for student visas. Demand for student visas has been twice that of last year. Resources were, therefore, shifted to deal with this increased demand so that students would be able to arrive for the beginning of the academic year. I hope my noble friend will be pleased to hear that a dedicated student task-force in Islamabad works with FedEx and with the British Council and seven accredited agents to fast-track the most genuine student applications within seven days.